Ankara’s reforms began to slow down after that, but Turkey’s transition really began to go downhill in the spring of 2007 when the Turkish military’s General Staff made it clear, via a statement on its website, that the military did not want the AKP’s favored candidate for president, then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, to assume the office because he was an Islamist. This was a critical moment in Turkish politics and one in which previous Turkish leaders would have folded almost immediately. Erdogan, sensing his party’s popularity and how much Turkish society had changed in the nearly five years since the AKP had come to power, refused to be intimidated. He called for new elections, which the party won with a broad coalition of pious and average Turks, Kurds, liberals, and big business that gave the AKP 47 percent of the vote. With his party’s renewed popular mandate, Erdogan nominated Gul to be Turkey’s 11th president.
In the midst of this showdown, the Istanbul police uncovered an alleged plot to overthrow the government. This was what came to be known as the Ergenekon case, which captivated Turkey from 2007 until verdicts were rendered in 2013. Initially, the investigation promised to root out Turkey’s “deep state”—an alleged network of military, intelligence, and civilian officials along with policemen, journalists, academics, business people, and mafia figures. Working in the shadows and beyond the law, the group’s goal was, Turks believed, to subvert the government and any centers of power that would challenge “the system” and this coalition’s interests in it. A few years after the Ergenekon case began, prosecutors pursued what was called the Sledgehammer investigation, which ensnared large numbers of senior military commanders in a suspected effort to bring down the government.
Given Turkey’s history of coups, the alleged schemes seemed entirely plausible. In time, however, it came to light that significant portions of the evidence in both Ergenekon and Sledgehammer were flimsy or fabricated, allegedly at the hands of prosecutors who were followers of the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. (Until 2013, the Gulenist movement—which Erdogan blames for last Friday’s attempted coup—and the AKP were partners.)
After that, Turkey’s democratic reversal expanded and accelerated. Erdogan was emboldened by the decapitation of the military and imprisonment of other opponents, at the same time that he was unrestrained by the now-dim prospect of EU membership. He moved to consolidate his personal power and in the process transform Turkish society. In addition to the trials, during which large numbers of officers were detained and civilian prosecutors armed with search warrants entered military bases searching for incriminating evidence, the government arrested journalists, often on specious charges of supporting terrorism; sued critics of Erdogan; imposed massive fines on businesses whose owners failed to support the AKP; and intimidated social-media companies like Twitter and Facebook to share data on their users. Through the pressure the AKP brought to bear on companies wanting to do business with the government, firms were encouraged to purchase media properties that could be counted on to faithfully report what the prime ministry wanted. The Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, Turkey’s national public broadcaster, and the Anadolu Agency, the state-run wire service, also became part of the AKP’s political operation. The result was a virtual ministry of information in the service of Erdogan and his party.