When it comes to political conspiracy theories, Turkey might be a regional trailblazer. Since the formation of the modern republic in the 1920s, Turkish politics has been typified by competing conspiracy theories ranging from the mundane to the absurd. Even today, best-selling books line mainstream bookshops claiming, among other things, that the country's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is secretly Jewish and a pawn in an American plot to take over Turkey.
While conspiracy theories are nothing new to the Middle East, their prevalence in Turkey is informative when analyzing the current crisis engulfing the country. On Dec. 17, dozens of people, including the sons of high-profile ministers in the Turkish cabinet and the head of state-run bank Halkbank, were swept up by police on graft charges. The corruption probe has led to the resignation of three top ministers, the reshuffling of the prime minister's Justice and Development Party and an unprecedented challenge to Erdogan's reign as the undisputed king of Turkish politics. It should come as no surprise that Erdogan has lashed out against the probe with claims of "dark plots" orchestrated by "foreign influences" that wish to damage Turkey.
Erdogan's mix of conservative Islam social politics and neoliberal economic outlook has revolutionized Turkey since he took office in 2002. The Justice and Development Party, or AKP as it is known in Turkey, is now the dominant political force in Turkey, bolstered by strong economic success throughout the global financial crisis. Yet, the current scandal reveals several fault lines inside of the religious right in Turkey. The relentless economic progress Erdogan has engendered in Turkey has been coupled with a personal desire to horde power that is now posing challenges for the politician and providing a window into Turkey's murky political inner workings.
Using Istanbul as a canvas for projected desires of the country, Erdogan's reign has been punctuated by rapid urban growth initiatives, including the creation of a new five-runway airport, a rail tunnel connecting Asia and Europe under the salty water of the Bosporus and a third bridge that would allow expansion of the city northward.
The sheer pace of projects in the city opens up the possibility for corruption. When minister Erdogan Bayraktar, a longtime friend of Erdogan's who oversaw some of the mega projects, resigned as part of the corruption probe, he told reporters that he had done nothing without Erdogan's approval.
At the beginning of 2013, Erdogan appeared untouchable, but as the year comes to a close, his reign is anything but guaranteed. In the foreign policy realm, Turkey's "no enemies" policy is inconsistent with the facts on the ground. Due to Erdogan's strong support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, relations with Egypt's military-backed rulers are at an all-time low. Warm relations with Israel remain elusive, and Turkey's strong desires to see a Western-led regime change in Syria hasn't been good for the country's relationship with the United States.
In one recent and bizarre show of strength, Turkey sought Chinese long-range anti-missile batteries, which are incompatible with the NATO batteries currently lining Turkey's 800-kilometer long border with Syria.
When demonstrators occupied Istanbul's Gezi Park in protest of the city's rapid urbanization and the AKP's growing authoritarian posture in the Turkish political realm, Erdogan responded with water cannons, tear gas and arbitrary arrests. Blaming a foreign plot to destabilize Turkey, security forces were given full authority to crush the demonstrations. While the Gezi Park protests might have cost Istanbul the Olympic bid in 2020, Erdogan emerged victorious over the protesters.
Perhaps it was this success that prompted him to go after a far more powerful political force in Turkey. Late last month, Erdogan announced plans to abolish private schools, many of them run by the Hizmet, or service, movement linked to the reclusive Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen. For years, Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and leads an influential Islamic movement, was a tenuous Erdogan ally.
Using his media empire and deep network of supporters in Turkey to defeat common opponents, the Gulen movement has proven instrumental in the AKP's rise to power. As a figure, Gulen is elusive but his influence in Turkey is extensive, with his real power lying in the judiciary and police. Hundreds of police officers harbor allegiance to the movement because they came through Gulenist charitable schools and went on to higher learning institutions on Gulen's dime.
The picture beckons a conspiracy theory from a John Le Carre novel: A master politician, who has neutralized political opponents, from the military to leftist protesters, goes head-to-head with a shadowy preacher that has many allies in the police force, thanks to years of targeted charitable education.
Erdogan's announcement that private schools would be abolished, mere months before local elections are set to take place, can only be interpreted as an attempt to limit Gulen's power and pave the way for Erdogan's unchallenged rule.
When the corruption probe broke last week, one would have been wise to place their bets on Erodgan's survival. Yet, the resignations of high-profile AKP ministers and close confidants of the prime minister's have many in Turkey wondering if this could be the end of Erdogan's political career.
The corruption probe has become almost a hobby for Turks these days. Rumors about prospective sex tapes featuring ministers and tales of bribery at the highest levels fill the newspapers and smoky cafes. Turkish media went into frenzy when $4.5 million in cash was found packed in shoeboxes in the home of the chief executive of a state-run bank, Halkbank. A money-counting machine and piles of cash were found in the bedroom of one government minister's son but that was quickly explained as coming from his recent sale of a villa.
Iranian-Azeri businessman Reza Zarrab has also come under suspicion in the corruption probe. Zarrab, who is married to a Turkish pop star, is rumored to have facilitated a money-laundering scheme with Iran that involved Turkish gold, Turkey's largest state owned bank and $350,000 watches given to Turkish officials.
Erdogan has not taken the corruption probe lightly. He responded by purging more than 70 police officials, including Istanbul's police chief. Perhaps more damaging though, he has threatened to expel foreign ambassadors from Turkey. Broadsheets supporting the prime minister have hinted that the U.S. ambassador, Francis Riccardione, was personally involved in the corruption probe as a way of getting back at Halkbank for working with Iran. Given the currency that conspiracy theories hold in Turkey, it is clear that Erdogan is trying to embolden his base of AKP supporters.
Those supporters have rallied on the streets of Istanbul and other major cities. When thousands took to the streets of Kadikoy, a neighborhood on Istanbul's Asian side, calling on Erdogan to step down, AKP came wrapped in burial shrouds. The message was clear; Erdogan's supporters are prepared to follow him to the death.
A cynical question hangs over the entire saga, would Erdogan risk Turkey's international standing in a single-minded question to remove any and all political obstacles in his path to unrivaled power?
Over the past year, Erdogan's charms have slowly fallen away, leaving a bombastic politician eager to entrench his power. The corruption probe represents Erdogan's final impediment to unfettered dominance over the Turkish political scene. If he is able to neutralize the Gulen movement, survive the corruption probe and win elections in 2014, Turkey will have a new sultan. He will not be a sultan of an empire, however, but a banana republic.