Imagine you are the leader of a regional power, basking in the glow of global attention to your political and economic success. You have managed to consolidate your power by outmaneuvering your opponents, most critically the military with its habit of pushing out governments not of its liking. You are celebrated the world over as a flawed, but transformative and visionary leader of an emerging democracy.
Now imagine you are faced with the revelation that key parts of the judiciary on which you have relied to accomplish your political transformation are controlled by a mafia that has systematically forged and planted evidence to frame your political opponents. In particular, the signature trial that brought your archenemy, the military, to heel – a mammoth court case in which hundreds of officers are charged with plotting a coup against you – is based on bogus evidence. What exactly do you do?
This is exactly the dilemma that Turkey’ Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces at the moment.
If he goes on with business as usual, Erdoğan will go down in history as a political leader who allowed a grotesque miscarriage of justice to take place under his watch. If he lets justice prevail he will have to face the rather substantial embarrassment of reversing course on a prosecution he has promoted with great fanfare.
So what does he do?
He could redirect blame to his Gülenist allies who have been the key driving force behind the sham trials. It is Gülen’s disciples in the police, judiciary and media who have launched and stage-managed these trials and bear the lion’s share of responsibility. Certainly Erdoğan would have some justification in claiming that the police and prosecutors have systematically misled him.
But it would take unusual political skill, even for Erdoğan, to wrangle out of his own responsibility. Some of the fabrications are so egregious and amateurish that Erdoğan must have known all along, even if his own narrow circle were not the instigator. I documented the forgeries used to lock up the officers to one of his senior cabinet members in a private meeting more than a year ago. Similar information would have reached him from many other sources, not least his senior military leaders.
Erdoğan tightly controls the appointment of senior police officers and members of the judiciary. He could have removed the schemers had he chosen to do so. Instead, he exploited the coup allegations to rally political support, reshape the military hierarchy, and pass constitutional amendments that expanded his powers.
Erdoğan has now painted himself into a corner out of which there is no easy escape. The path of least resistance will be to let the fraud run its course and stand by as a sham court issues certain convictions. That, however, is the surest way to undermine his future political legacy.
Erdoğan is arguably the most successful political leader since the Turkish republic’s founder. But how he enters history books will be determined less by his previous accomplishments than by the choices he makes from this point on.