Erdoğan’s straw men and scapegoats

Erdoğan’s straw men and scapegoats

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s finest trick is to keep persuading people that it is always someone else’s fault. The latest “crisis” around Turkey’s intelligence chief might be yet another example.

In the 1990s, Erdoğan’s rise to the coveted office of Istanbul mayor was indeed fuelled by the faults of others: Secularists and/or corrupt politicians, interventionist military officers, and outdated Islamists.

With his reformed Islamism from the early 2000s, Erdoğan started to dominate national politics, elected as prime minister three times and finally, in August 2014, becoming Turkey’s first ever popularly-elected president, mostly thanks to voters of lower income and education levels. 

Finding or creating adversaries and friends at the right time has always been at the core of Erdoğan’s success. He presented himself as an economic reformer against the old elite, a civilian leader against military tutelage, a champion of human rights against those who have been limiting them, and an EU-oriented politician against anti-EU nationalists.

Erdoğan’s theoretical discourse and electoral success allowed him to win the support of a wide spectrum ranging from Turkish liberals to many international actors, particularly until Turkey’s reform drive stopped and even reversed at some point around the mid-2000s. 

Ultimately, his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) swallowed almost the entire right-wing and condemned the left to be the prisoner of his carefully-planned (neo) liberal/conservative policies and rhetoric for over a decade. 

Erdoğan’s masterful politics could not have succeeded for such a long time had it not been the devastating 2001 economic crisis in Turkey and the sky-rocketing growth that followed, thanks to the reforms of the previous government and the international conjuncture that supported it for a decade.

Looking to continuing his electoral success until at least 2023, Erdoğan now almost surely sees that he faces unprecedented economic challenges with slowing growth, plunging export and tourism revenues, missed inflation targets, depreciation of the Turkish Lira, rising public spending and a stronger U.S. economy that affects all developing countries negatively with the Federal Reserve ending its bond buying program.

For Erdoğan, the big picture means that perhaps it is a good time to transfer some of his liabilities. Hence, his unprecedented confessions that he was neither infallible nor all-powerful came on the eve of possible electoral and economic failures by his administration in 2015. This despite the fact that he had portrayed himself as infallible and all-powerful during the years of AKP success in both areas.

Last year, Erdoğan admitted that he was “mistaken and deceived” by U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, his ally-turned-nemesis, transferring most of the government’s political responsibilities in recent human rights abuses (like in the Ergenekon case), failures in security and intelligence (like attacks by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, and the Syria issue) onto the shoulders of “backstabbing” Gülenist public servants.

Then, he started to turn Erdem Başçı, Turkey’s Central Bank governor, into a scapegoat for not cutting interest rates, thereby transferring most of the government’s responsibilities in current and future economic failures onto his shoulders.

In his latest unusual statement, Erdoğan said Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), resigned from his post to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections despite the Turkish president’s objection.

Media organizations close to Erdoğan, which have been conducting fierce campaigns against Gülen and Başçı, are now strangely emphasizing that the Fidan decision was taken by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, not the Turkish president (though Davutoğlu stressed late on Feb. 11 that it was Fidan’s own decision, not his).

As the general elections scheduled for June 7 approach, get ready for things to get more complicated. Nuh Albayrak, the editor-in-chief of pro-government daily Star, wrote the following in his Feb. 12 column:

“I think that the new government [after June 7]  can make a regulation to let Fidan continue his active role in the next important phase of the peace process and keep managing the MİT with a broader authority. This can also be an ideal method to stave off President Erdoğan’s reaction to Hakan Fidan.”

Although Albayrak also suggested the latest crisis was not a “mise-en-scene” (in his column, which was strangely published on the web but not in the print edition of his newspaper), this panorama might be indicative of another scene that we will possibly be able to watch in awe in the near future, considering Erdoğan’s political history: Davutoğlu retreating from the political scene due to possible failures, replaced by a more powerful Fidan, under the now “soothed” gaze of Erdoğan, who, God forbid, never faces the risk of losing his seat or popularity due to “someone else’s faults.”

Meanwhile, expanding the domestic security capacity of the government and increasing its control over the Internet “just in case” wouldn’t hurt anybody, would it?