Turkey's hard-headed prime minister bans YouTube, as a divided country votes on his increasingly paranoid rule.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — "They have leaked something on YouTube today," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a campaign rally on March 27. "It is a vile, cowardly, immoral act. We will go after them in their lairs."
Erdogan was worked up over a leaked recording purporting to feature top diplomatic, intelligence, and military officials discussing possible ways to justify military intervention in Syria. The timing of the leak appears designed to act as a final blow to the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) before Turks head to the polls on Sunday for nationwide local elections.
The Turkish government’s response revealed how accustomed it has become to treating those who don’t support it as enemies: It blocked access to YouTube the same day the leak appeared, less than a week after blocking Twitter — two social media outlets where news of the leak had been disseminated widely. The government admitted that the conversation happened, but insisted, vaguely, that parts were distorted. Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu described the leak as a "clear declaration of war."
This weekend, Turkey will elect mayors and city council members — but the results will be interpreted as a referendum on Erdogan, who has been prime minister since 2002. These elections are occurring after 10 months of tumult and confusion, during which the country has seemed to subvert its reputation as a functioning democracy and regional leader.
In May, environmentalists occupied Istanbul’s Gezi Park to save it from demolition and sparked the largest anti-government protests since the AKP took power. In December, prosecutors ordered the arrest of high-profile businessmen and sons of cabinet ministers in a sweeping corruption investigation, as a war between Erdogan and his former ally, the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, erupted into plain sight. Erdogan deemed the Gulenists a "parallel state" plotting a coup.
The Gulenists appear to have struck back with leaks of phone conversations that purport to show corruption at the highest ranks of the Turkish government. In one particularly explosive leak, Erdogan allegedly commands his son to dispose of millions of dollars hidden in relatives’ homes. The prime minister retaliated: In broad, authoritarian strokes, the government passed laws granting itself sweeping power over the Internet and the judiciary, allowing it to control both the spread of the leaks and the prosecution’s case.
Erdogan’s rhetoric has also grown increasingly severe and polarizing. In mid-March, the prime minister called 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, who died after being hit on the head with a tear gas canister during a protest nine months earlier, a "terrorist" in front of a crowd of supporters, who reportedly booed the dead teenager. Even the Turkish Medical Association, the country’s trade union for doctors, was swept up in the political debate: The association released a statement that read: "We are worried about the emotional state of Prime Minister Erdogan!"
"In my whole lifetime I’ve never seen an election day in Turkey with a society this divided," Murat Somer, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Koc University, told me. "It’s almost like two worlds. It’s surreal, what’s happening."
The election results will be parsed closely for any signs that Erdogan’s decade-long dominance of Turkish politics is cracking. The AKP received 38 percent of the vote in the 2009 local elections, and officials have adopted that number as their goal for Sunday. It’s modest compared to the 50 percent they received in 2011 parliamentary elections, but practical. Erdogan, though, tends to rely heavily on election results to justify his actions in office: During the Gezi Park protests, he criticized the protesters, telling his followers to "Be patient, and let’s face off at the ballot box." More recently, he said that if the AKP does not come first on Sunday, he will "quit politics."
Polls show the AKP ahead in Istanbul, the election’s biggest prize, though some surveys show their closest rival, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), closing the gap. The fate of Ankara is less clear, and the CHP appears clearly ahead in Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city.
Erdogan has been campaigning vigorously, identifying and punishing supposed enemies of Turkey, such as Gulen. At a recent rally, the premier’s normally commanding voice was so strained that it broke into a high-pitched whine, earning him the nickname "helium man" among his detractors.
"[Erdogan] needs to maintain his image as the asset who makes AKP success possible," Somer said. "If he loses some votes — even a small percent or a major city — that will be a signal to people in the party that he is a liability."
In addition to securing control over his own party, a show of strength in the elections will signify the defeat of the Gulen Movement’s challenge to his authority. The network, known alternately as the hizmet ("service") or cemaat ("community"), is said to number some 5 million worldwide, and is rooted in Gulen’s religious teachings. Its influence, though, extends into the government, police, and judiciary. Erdogan and the Gulenists worked together to tame the Turkish military and build tolerance for religion within Turkish institutions, but began to part ways in 2011 when Erdogan reportedly grew unhappy with the group’s power.
The split has harmed both sides, destroying the sense that they were the uncontested rulers of Turkish politics.
"A year ago most people assumed that the AKP was invincible, and that the Gulenists within the judiciary could come after [the opposition] with impunity," Hakan Altinay, a fellow at the Brookings Institution told me earlier this year. "It seems that the Gulenists were not as untouchable as we thought a year ago."
Sunday’s vote won’t fix the damage from this infighting — but it will determine what form future damage will take. "If the election results come out in favor of the government, then Erdogan will most likely use even heavier handed tactics and Turkey’s standing will sink lower," said Mehmet Ali Tugtan, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilgi University. "But if the opposition gains ground, again Turkey’s options will decrease because the [AKP government] will look weak and lose credibility."
If the elections hope to restore some faith in the foundation of Turkey’s democracy, they must go smoothly — but even here, the atmosphere is thick with anxiety. "I trust the electorate, even if after all this they say we are sticking with Erdogan," said H. Akin Unver, a fellow at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. "I trust democracy … but I have major concerns about how free and fair the elections will be. The stakes are so high."