In recent months, the Turkish government has weathered an epic corruption scandal. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been at the centre of it, rebutting all charges and denouncing his accusers in front of cheering crowds. In any European country, he would not have lasted five minutes.
Imagine David Cameron dismissing multiple phone conversations in which he is heard apparently rigging tenders as “dubbed montages”. Imagine him admitting freely to conversations in which he bullies Rupert Murdoch into printing exclusively pro-Conservative news stories, describing this as “advising the media, as a Prime Minister is meant to do”. Imagine him quashing an investigation into corruption claims by firing everyone involved. Now imagine him painting himself the victim of a foreign coup attempt, the phone tapes its evil currency. Imagine that he is believed by millions of people, adored and respected as an invincible leader, come what may.
The above scenario is difficult to imagine because there is a common consensus in Britain that politicians are accountable for their actions and subject to the law. British politicians are rarely revered, and usually in retrospect (Churchill springs to mind). While they are in power, they have a rough time even from their own party. Leadership is not an easy ride.
In Turkey, leadership is the ride of a lifetime – literally. If you manage to convince enough of the population that you are powerful, and that you are on their side, they love you forever. You are exalted, a demi-god with apparently limitless authority, and you want to keep it that way. Of course, it would be an injustice not to mention the millions of Turks who do not subscribe to this form of government. They despair of the politicians currently in power; we saw millions of them during the Gezi protests, and we hear their views passionately expressed in (some) mainstream and social media. Unfortunately, they are not in the majority.
You only have to talk to Erdoğan’s supporters in Turkey to realise the extraordinary power this man has over those whose lives he has made better, those who see him as a personal benefactor. Yes, in the past decade of AKP rule, public services have improved, roads have been built, hospitals modernised. In many countries, these would be seen as much-needed reforms – any mainstream party would put them top of their agenda. In Turkey, they are seen as achievements of such unprecedented magnificence and beneficence that the religious working class will be grateful forever. Turks’ expectations of politicians are so low, unfortunately, that Erdoğan is a miracle-worker. He is “The Grand Master” and he can do no wrong.
I didn’t quite appreciate the strength of these pro-Erdoğan feelings until I tested them myself. For some time after the phone tapes started circulating on the internet, I thought: “People must not have heard them. The tapes are not on the news – it must be that. Otherwise there would be a nationwide outcry.”
So I went with laptop in hand to my local tailor, a devout and intelligent man in his sixties called Yahya, who is a staunch supporter of the AKP. I knew he had not heard the tapes. Our conversation went as follows:
- I’ve got the tapes here – do you want to listen to them?
- I’m not really interested.
- But you could decide for yourself whether they sound fake or not.
- I know they’re fake.
- Really? How?
- That man in America makes them all up!
- Do you mean Fetullah Gülen [Erdoğan’s one-time ally, now adversary]?
- Yes, but I won’t say his name anymore. Not after what he has done.
- OK – but just listen to the tapes and see for yourself.
- Why? Even if I heard these conversations with my own ears, I wouldn’t believe them. Even if I saw him stealing with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it.
This last sentence floored me. How do you argue with a man who trusts his prime minister more than he trusts the evidence of his own eyes and ears? If news channels were permitted to play these tapes (which they’re not), if nothing but these tapes played from morning til night on every news channel in the land, Yahya the tailor would remain unmoved.
His assistant, Mehmet Ali, shed further light on the matter when he entertained the hypothesis that the corruption claims might be true.
“Even if they are true, he will be called to account in the afterlife. It is not for us to judge him, but Allah.”
This kind of view reflects the status of Erdoğan as a demi-god in Turkey, a man who remains above mortal laws, a man whose overt religiosity convinces his followers that he has God on his side. For me, this was a profoundly depressing realisation, and it has made me reassess the future of the country and wonder how long it will be until road-building and personal charisma are not lifelong tickets to power. For the moment, however, they are. Accusations of corruption and authoritarianism may taint Erdoğan’s image abroad, but for many in Turkey, he remains above reproach.
In the words of MC Hammer: “You can’t touch this.”