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The Wikileaks diplomatic cables reveal further evidence of a Turkish prime minister using every tactic at his disposal to bolster his authoritarianism

Gareth H. Jenkins
January 06, 2011
Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking in Ankara last month; a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable.(Erdogan: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images; cable: Wikileaks)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking in Ankara last month; a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable.(Erdogan: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images; cable: Wikileaks)

In early December 2010, Wikileaks published a 2004 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara that quoted two unidentified sources in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, as reporting that the government was riddled with corruption and that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had stashed some of the proceeds in eight Swiss bank accounts. Erdogan responded to the leak furiously, pointedly warning that the last person to have the temerity to accuse him of corruption had been arrested on charges of plotting a military coup and was currently languishing in jail as part of Turkey’s notorious Ergenekon investigation.

Over the weeks that followed, more leaked cables showed U.S. officials delivering withering assessments of the competence, honesty, and intellectual capabilities of the members of the AKP government, and a string of AKP government ministers went on national television to denounce all of the Wikileaks documents as part of an Israeli plot to try to blacken Turkey’s international reputation.

No conclusive evidence has been produced to support the claim that Erdogan has eight Swiss bank accounts. But both his reaction and that of his ministers to the U.S. Embassy material published by Wikileaks were probably more revealing about the nature of AKP rule than the allegations themselves. They provide further proof not only of the widespread paranoia and anti-Semitism in the party but also of the government’s growing tendency to try to intimidate its critics into silence, including a willingness to imprison them on trumped-up criminal charges. Perhaps more worryingly, Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism has made his often belligerent personality one of the main determinants of government policy at a time when he is planning, if the AKP wins the next general election in June 2011, to change the Turkish constitution and concentrate even more power in his own hands.


Founded in 1923 from the ruins of the theocratic Ottoman Empire, the modern Turkish Republic has never been a pluralistic, liberal democracy. Through most of its history, domestic politics have been characterized by corrupt and incompetent politicians operating under the ever-watchful eye of the fiercely secular Turkish military, which has intervened four times in the last 50 years to force an elected government from power.

Nevertheless, starting in 1999, when Turkey was officially named as a candidate for E.U. accession, there were tentative signs that restrictions on freedom of expression were finally beginning to be eased. The process continued and accelerated after the AKP first came to power in November 2002 and pushed through a barrage of reforms to try to secure a date for the opening of full accession negotiations with the European Union, winning the praise of U.S. and other Western officials as a beacon of moderate Muslim democracy. However, this progress began to reverse after the AKP was re-elected by a landslide in July 2007.

Buoyed by their election victory, and confident that the military’s political influence was in terminal decline, AKP sympathizers in the police and lower echelons of the judiciary began to use what became known as the Ergenekon investigation to intimidate both the military and civilian critics of the government. The investigation was originally touted as an attempt to suppress shadowy networks in the security forces, what Turks call the derin devlet, or “deep state.” But although the deep state is a reality of recent Turkish history—and members were involved in death squads that terrorized southeast Turkey during the early 1990s—no attempt was made to investigate genuine malefactors. Instead, the Ergenekon investigation became a political witch-hunt tinged with obtuse paranoia in which a single, centrally coordinated—and manifestly fictional—clandestine organization was accused of responsibility for every act of political violence in Turkey in the last 25 years. Those who questioned the prosecutors’ claims—and the numerous breaches of due process, including the apparent fabrication of evidence—were subjected to public smear campaigns; in several cases they were arrested and charged with being members of Ergenekon themselves.

To date, almost 500 people have been detained, and 277 have been formally accused of membership in Ergenekon. Yet there is still no proof that the organization has ever existed, much less that it carried out the crimes attributed to it. Nevertheless, it remains a catchall for the apparent crime of criticizing the current Turkish government. In December 2010, when students staged a series of protests against a planned increase in university fees, government ministers went on television to accuse the students of being members of Ergenekon.

In January of last year, pro-AKP prosecutors launched yet another investigation, this time codenamed Sledgehammer, after the name of an alleged plot by the Turkish military to seize power in 2003. The first hearing in the case was held on December 16, 2010, when 196 serving and retired members of the Turkish military were formally charged with planning a coup. The accusations are based on documents reportedly discovered on a CD handed to a pro-AKP journalist by an anonymous informant. According to a government forensic report, all of the documents were saved to the CD on March 5, 2003. However, they contain numerous references to events that occurred much more recently, some as late as 2008.

Rationally, such irrefutable proof that the documents had been altered or fabricated should have triggered a storm of protest and ridicule in the Turkish press. But the pro-AKP media have simply ignored the anachronisms and run campaigns of smears and intimidation against anyone who has questioned the authenticity of the Sledgehammer investigation.

The climate of fear in Turkey at the moment is such that most Turks prefer to remain silent rather than face the consequences of challenging the AKP. After its landslide election victory in July 2007, the AKP initiated a campaign to stifle the free press by boosting the market shares of media outlets sympathetic to the government and bullying critics into silence. AKP-controlled state banks have been used to provide massive low-cost loans to finance the purchase of newspapers and television channels by Erdogan’s close associates. Journalists critical of the AKP have been imprisoned, including for alleged membership of Ergenekon, and their publications subjected to massive financial penalties.

In September 2008, the main independent media group, Dogan Medya Holding, published details of a German court ruling that some of Erdogan’s close associates had taken millions of dollars from an Islamic charity. Erdogan went on national television and told AKP supporters to stop buying Dogan’s newspapers. Over the weeks that followed, a stream of tax inspectors started arriving at Dogan’s offices. During the course of 2009, Dogan was hit with fines over $3 billion for alleged tax evasion. Dogan subsequently fired journalists critical of the AKP and now exercises careful self-censorship, although the tax evasion charges have yet to be dropped.

Perhaps the most blatant example of the abuse of power by the AKP’s supporters came last fall, after a police chief named Hanefi Avci published a book alleging that followers of the exiled Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen (whose influential religious movement is broadly supportive of the AKP) were manufacturing criminal investigations against their opponents. A very pious Muslim and relentless opponent of communism, Avci had been accused of overseeing the torture and mistreatment of hundreds of leftists during the 1970s and 1980s. On September 28, 2010, two days before he was due to hold a press conference to provide documentary evidence to support his claims, Avci was arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of aiding an extremist leftist organization. He remains in jail.

The arrests, tax fines, and smear campaigns mean that the AKP and its supporters now enjoy a very undemocratic monopoly of the public debate in Turkey. After more than eight years in power, it has also ensured that party loyalists are now deeply entrenched in the police and judicial system as well as other branches of the civil service. Membership in, or a good relationship with, the AKP has become a prerequisite when bidding for state contracts or applying for licenses. Companies whose owners are known to be sympathetic to opposition parties, particularly those associated with Turkey’s old secular elite, often face problems obtaining even relatively straightforward permits from the state, with the result that an increasing number are being forced to close down, while companies associated with the AKP—particularly those owned by friends and relatives of members of Erdogan’s inner circle—are becoming spectacularly wealthy.


In the AKP’s defense, it is true that—even if it has yet to take sufficient concrete steps to address the grievances of Turkey’s Kurds—the public debate on the Kurdish issue remains more open today than ever before. But on virtually every other issue, the AKP is becoming increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent, to the point where most Turks are now afraid even of speaking on the telephone. With the military marginalized, and both the independent media and the political opposition intimidated, there is a real concern that things are going to get even worse.

The AKP currently looks set to win a third term in the general election that is scheduled for June 12, 2011. Erdogan has attempted to defuse public unease about his increasing authoritarianism by repeatedly promising that, if the AKP is re-elected, he will introduce a new liberal constitution in late 2011. But he has privately told his aides that the new constitution will include a shift from the current parliamentary system to a presidential one. Erdogan’s presidential system is not expected to include any checks or balances, as in the American system, but to concentrate virtually all political power in Erdogan’s hands. If he succeeds, there is a genuine fear that any remaining vestiges of the brief democratic spring after the AKP first took power will completely disappear and that Turkey will head into a long, dark, authoritarian winter.

Gareth H. Jenkins is a writer and analyst based in Istanbul.

Gareth H. Jenkins is a writer and analyst based in Istanbul.