Erdoğan’s skullduggery

In a classic textbook style of how an authoritarian leader behaves, Turkey's “dictator-wannabe” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan employs tactics ranging from blackmailing of his opponents to co-opting or outright buying them off, from running smear campaigns to setting up plots to frame and discredit his challengers so that his one-man rule gets prolonged amid a sputtering economy, a constitutional crisis and a massive corruption scandal.

Therefore lies, deceit and cheats galore are often invoked by Erdoğan and his associates to make the government's case on any challenging issue appear credible in the eyes of the public. Yet, confronted with the truth and hard facts, these illusory efforts often end in vain. Nevertheless, they generate enough smoke and noise to blur the vision for voters during election campaign periods, buy Erdoğan enough precious time, help undermine the legitimate opposition by political parties, and dial down the argument made by advocacy groups, and independent and critical media.

Erdoğan first tried this approach to tackle mass anti-government protests during the Gezi Park events of May-June 2013 when his pro-government media carried fabricated reports of a scandalous nature such as the desecration of a mosque by protesters or an attack by dozens of bare-chested man with leather pants on a headscarved lady with a baby carriage. Both of these stories were found to be mere lies that were deliberately fed by the Islamist government to rally its supporters and consolidate ranks. Erdoğan and his gang did not care about the likelihood of igniting social upheaval over these lies provided that they had served to extend what is left of their political careers.

The second major instance of this approach was seen right after the huge corruption investigations that incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and his political and business associates in December 2013. The propaganda team, mostly drawn from the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), cooked up the story of Francis J. Ricciardone, then the US ambassador in Ankara, being involved in a scheme attempting to topple the government that was allegedly disclosed in a secret meeting with several European ambassadors. The story was carried in the headlines of five pro-government dailies. On the same day, Erdoğan picked up on the news during a public rally in the Black Sea city of Samsun and threatened to expel Ricciardone as persona non grata.

Targeting the US ambassador helped Erdoğan set the stage to blame the corruption on a Western conspiracy led by Washington when, in fact, there was no evidence to prove that was the case. He also concocted one of the biggest hoaxes in recent history that Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar who has inspired a worldwide network of education and charity work, set up what Erdoğan called a “parallel structure” to remove him from power. With a vitriolic defamation campaign, Erdoğan aimed to discredit this well-respected Muslim leader who has been a vocal critic of corruption in the government and is steadfastly opposed to blatant abuse of Islam by politicians for career advancement and personal enrichment.

As these spin stories lost their appeal with the public over time when no evidence was presented to back them up, Erdoğan's propagandist machinery felt compelled to add more flavor to the tale of lies, further hurting the government's already tainted credibility. In February, pro-government dailies came up with an assassination plot on the president's daughter Sümeyye Erdoğan, which involved a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Umut Oran, and US-based investigative journalist and analyst Emre Uslu as alleged co-conspirators. The target was to smear the main opposition political party ahead of parliamentary elections. However, the plan fell apart when Oran disclosed his private Twitter messages in official documents he obtained from the micro-blogging site, which showed no trace of any contact between him and Uslu -- who was falsely identified as a government whistleblower who tweets under the pseudonym Fuat Avni -- about an assassination plan.

The most recent act in Erdoğan's world of lies, cheats and deceit was revealed by the government whistleblower Fuat Avni earlier this week. Avni stated that Erdoğan is planning to plant weapons and ammunition in houses and buildings used by followers of the non-violent civil society group called Hizmet, also known as the Gülen Movement, in order to declare the movement a terrorist organization ahead of the upcoming general election. According to the plot, the weapons will be used in murders before they are to be planted in Hizmet houses in Cizre, a town in the southeastern province of Şırnak. The investigation will later lead to trumped-up arrests of people associated with Fethullah Gülen.

With these wild conspiratorial plots apparently orchestrated by Erdoğan's propaganda team, the embattled president wants to consolidate his power while creating conditions on the ground to justify his authoritarian and, in fact, unconstitutional rule. These far-fetched and fake plots, covered extensively by pro-Erdoğan media, also help him to deflect public attention away from economic woes, corruption scandals, an unpopular settlement process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and failures in Turkish foreign policy.

In the short term, Erdoğan's tactics may have worked. But as more evidence comes out for each plot he has orchestrated, Erdoğan has discredited himself more. When he resorted to similar tactics to repress the growing rift within the ruling party, it led to further disarray among the ranks, blowing back in his face. The recent polls suggest that the public is slowly but surely turning against his rule. Erdoğan has also been losing face internationally when, for example, he blatantly abused foreign policy matters for domestic political campaigns and used the US, the EU and Arabs as whipping boys to polish his image at home.

As a result, Erdoğan lost the credibility and ability to convince his partners, at home and abroad, into taking himself at his word. Whatever his assertions may be, his versions of events were eventually turned on their heads when the truth eventually prevailed. One way or another, the Turkish president will have to face the music when this long-running scheme of scapegoating others for his own mistakes and failures collapses.

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