Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may think he is riding high. Despite the recent Gezi protests, he remains popular among a large segment of society and, during his last election, he surpassed 50 percent of the vote. He may believe demography is on his side, for religious Anatolians upon whose support he relies have more babies than the more Europeanized, Mediterranean Turks who tourists falsely believe dominate the country based on interactions in historic districts of Istanbul and along the Mediterranean coast. Even though frustration with Erdoğan runs high throughout Turkey and anxiety about the true state of the Turkish economy has increased in recent months, the prime minister can take solace in the impotence of the opposition’s leadership.
Erdoğan at best sees himself as a combination between Russian President Vladimir Putin and an Ottoman sultan, and at worst has become unhinged. He appears above the law, shuttering opposition media willy-nilly to the point where Turkey now rests in the bottom 15 percent in world press freedom, behind such enemies of freedom as Russia, the Palestinian Authority, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela, and only just above Belarus and Egypt. The imprisonment of journalists, generals, and civil society activists has made a mockery of Turkish justice, making Midnight Express look like Turkish courts’ liberal, open, golden age. Erdoğan, who was imprisoned two decades ago for religious incitement, is far more interested in settling scores than he is in reforming or democratizing Turkey.
The problem is few Turkish leaders are as secure as they come to believe. By imprisoning journalists, opposition parliamentarians, and generals for little more than their belief in secularism and Western-style liberalism, Erdoğan is creating a precedent for his own future. Erdoğan—and, according to U.S. diplomatic documents, some of his top cronies like Egemen Bağış and Cuneyt Zapsu—are corrupt; Erdoğan himself has more than a dozen suspended corruption probes against him that, theoretically, will restart once he loses his immunity.
Many of those sentenced to prison on trumped-up charges and conspiracies will not likely end their lives or careers in prison, even if their immediate situation appears dire. Sometimes, the sultan wears no clothes. Unfortunately for Erdoğan, he has paved the way for his new set to be a prison uniform, probably sooner than he realizes.