On Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was jubilant. His AK Party had established relatively healthy results in municipal elections with 44 percent of the vote. It's an important step for Erdoğan, who is hoping to cement his leadership ahead of this summer’s presidential election and the parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.
From the outside, Erdoğan had looked vulnerable in recent month. Bans placed on YouTube and Twitter seemed like desperate measures after almost a year of street protests. Erdoğan's strident victory speech Sunday evening seemed to confirm a different tactic.
As I wrote Saturday, Erdoğan's social media ban is a means-unto-an-end for his real targets: The "deep state" working within the Turkish government he suspects of recording and leaking conversations between top-level AKP associates, and the Gülen movement, the religious organization suspected of orchestrating a corruption probe that has ensnared many of his allies.
Erdoğan's speech was full of allusions to his enemies, both conflating them and targeting them specifically. Here's how he began:
Well, today is March 30. What did they say? They said “Chaos after March 25.” Correct. We saw the chaos. What was this chaos? This country found the opportunity to see the traitors who eavesdropped on the Foreign Ministry and committed treachery by interfering in the national security of this state and people. That was their chaos plan. I’ve been saying for months that “We’ll walk into their dens.”
Directly referencing audio leaks that appeared to suggest Turkey was considering annexing part of Syria, he went on to say:
Those who managed could flee. More can flee tomorrow. I have filed criminal complaints about some of them; I said they can also flee. As I have said, from now on, we’ll walk into their dens. They will pay for this. How can you threaten our national security? Syria is in a state of war with us. They are harassing our planes. They have martyred our 74 brothers and the Süleyman Şah Tomb is our lands. An attack against there is an attack against 780,000 square kilometers. Can we remain silent about such a thing? But these traitors wiretapped this meeting and leaked it to the world.
Erdoğan continued by making a reference to the Assassins of the middle ages, a group who had a reputation for covertly murdering their rivals to destabilize the Middle East:
They are worse than Assassins. They are beyond them. My brothers, there is a very important message conveyed by our people through the polls. Our people have made their objection and their stance against attempts to change the direction of Turkey through non-political ways.
Acknowledging the existence of tapes, such as those taken from a security meeting, Erdoğan said that such tactics ("montage politics") had lost and their supporters had received a "full Ottoman slap by the nation":
Election results show who lost, more than they show who won. Please listen to these words carefully: Today, unethical politics has lost. Tape politics, montage politics, slander and denigration politics has lost. Politics without building something, politics without plans and projects, without goals, has lost. Oh, General Manager [referring to the main opposition CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu], oh, so-called party chair! What would you speak of during your election campaign if you didn’t have those tapes? We spoke of plans, projects. They spoke of lies, dissimulation, slander, sedition and intrigue. The status quo has taken a huge blow today. Dirty relations and unnamed alliances have lost today. Every kind of tutelage and to all kinds of tutelage-dictating centers has been hit with a full Ottoman slap by the nation. Arrogance has lost today. Pride has lost today. The arrogance that looks down on its nation, belittling it and making light of its choices has lost in the ballot box one again.
He went on to specifically target Fethullah Gülen, the Islamic leader who now lives in Pennsylvania and who is rumored to be behind a corruption probe targeting the AKP party. The references to media were important too – Erdoğan has begun suing journalists linked to Gülen-backed newspapers:
You know those people who used that blood-dripping, anger-inducing, hate-mongering headlines. … Today, they have lost heavily again. Oh, Pennsylvania, oh, the media who support them from here, oh, the capital that supported them … Weren't you positioned against democracy? Democracy has won at the ballot box today. The will has won at the ballot box. What happened to the messages that you gave with an expectation of a coup in Turkey in 2014 in the 21st century? Look at this, the nation is here. The people are here. Those who'd love to plot a route for Turkey through extra-political interventions have lost today at the ballot box. Where are you now?
He continued accusing Turkey's opposition parties of remaining silent while he was targeted by Gülen and the "deep state" that conspired to bring him down:
Did you hear them saying “This is treason, this is espionage, we are taking sides with the government against this.” Can those who take sides with Pennsylvania say these? This was what they said when said there will be chaos after [March] 25. They said the economy would collapse; did it? We will get stronger in the economy, in politics and in democracy.
After making reference to the unity of the Turkish state, he made another allusion to the "deep state" – a clandestine organization that is dedicated to covertly changing the course of Turkish politics through undemocratic means:
They have entered our institutions over in 35-40 years. They infiltrated wherever. We became the victim of our good intentions. Now it is time to comb them out, within the law. Why? Because from now on, neither the nation nor we will show tolerance to such networks. Look, thank God, we have been granted the proud and honor of being at the forefront of this path. Maybe tomorrow we will not be in these posts. We have tried to glorify whatever task my God has given us. After now, as long as this body has this life, God willing, we will try to loyally adopt whatever tasks are bestowed onto us. If God pleases, we will put in an effort to laud our flag and our land as the servants of this country and nation until our last breath. We are highly relieved. We feel the pride of carrying the great Turkish flag, which we took over from our predecessors, to high bastions.
Erdoğan's speech was designed to remind listeners that he was the democratically elected leader of Turkey, and that things had gotten better under his leadership. Turkey was no longer governed by the "deep state" that murdered Kurdish separatists, landed Islamists in prison, and brought down a number of democratically elected governments whenever they felt that they had moved too far away from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's vision of a secular, military-dominated Turkey. Nor was he Fethullah Gülen, his former ally and now his worst enemy,the leader of an Islamic movement that is suspected of working its way into the police and judiciary system in a way that reminds many people of the "deep state" once used by secularists.
Assuming the fears of the "deep state" and Gülen are strong enough, this tactic could work for Erdoğan. And, it allows him to avoid the very real concerns that many Turkish people had about his government – concerns about corruption, militarism, capitalism and Islamism.
Erdoğan also seemed to be showing that he was willing to step up his fight against the "deep state" and Gülen. Exactly how he'll get them ("in their dens") remains to be seen.