Turks are glued to a sensational drama, this one political
Turks have always loved a good soap opera. Years ago the fixation was "Dallas," and Turks of a certain age still refer to a woman who drinks too much as Sue Ellen, the boozy character on that show. More recently, the Turkish drama "The Magnificent Century," about palace intrigue and romance in an Ottoman sultan's harem, became an obsession here and in the Middle East.
Currently, though, the show to watch is Turkey's own political crisis, set off by a corruption scandal that has played out like a serial drama through the steady flow of leaked telephone conversations. The most sensational one was released Monday night, an apparently wire tapped conversation in which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, worried about an investigation closing in, is heard telling his son to get tens of millions of dollars out of the house.
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Mr. Erdogan's office has dismissed this latest bombshell disclosure as a fabrication. But it has inevitably heightened the sense of crisis that has enveloped Turkey since the corruption scandal burst into public view in mid-December with a series of dawn raids on the homes and offices of associates of Mr. Erdogan.
The crisis has damaged Turkey's already troubled economy. The currency tumbled again on Tuesday while opposition lawmakers called — and not for the first time— for the government to step down, with one official saying Mr. Erdogan should either resign or flee the country "by helicopter."
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For many Turks, the disclosures represented just the latest episode of a continuing, and opaque, national obsession, one that played out Monday night in predictable fashion. Social media went into overdrive — along with government censors, apparently, as the original leak suddenly became unavailable to many Internet users here — while the mainstream Turkish news media stayed largely silent.
Mr. Erdogan did not stay silent, though. His office quickly released a statement saying, "Phone recordings published on the Internet that are alleged to be between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son are a product of an immoral montage that is completely false."
The statement promised that legal action would be taken. "Those who framed this dirty plot against the prime minister of the Turkish Republic will be held responsible within the law," it said. Adding to the suspense, Mr. Erdogan went on to hold a late-night meeting with his spy chief and his interior minister.
The Turkish public was left to wonder what would come next, given the aggressive steps the government had already taken to contain the crisis. So far Ankara has purged thousands of police officers and hundreds of prosecutors and passed new laws permitting censorship of the Internet and increasing government control over the judiciary — both of which have attracted widespread condemnation abroad.
The corruption inquest represents the greatest challenge to Mr. Erdogan's power in more than a decade. While it has been cast by the government as a conspiracy mounted by followers of the Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, Mr. Gulen himself has strongly denied any involvement.
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However,most analysts say his adherents are entrenched within the Turkish state, where they are in a position to do a great deal of damage if they so choose. The crisis actually stems, many say, from a fallout between Mr. Gulen and Mr.Erdogan, who were once allies in the current Islamist governing coalition.
Now that they are warring, many Turks say they are caught in the middle of a power struggle.
"There is no way of knowing whether the tapes are real or fake,"said Ince Unaldi, who works in a women's clothing boutique in the affluent Etiler district of Istanbul, after listening to the latest leak. "We are being dragged into a war of two very dark forces."
In a statement, the Rumi Forum, a Washington-based center for interfaith cooperation of which Mr. Gulen is honorary chairman, said on Tuesdaynight that "Mr. Gulen has no connection whatsoever with any phone tapping, including that of the prime minister and his son that was revealed yesterday."
For many Turks the scandal, and the manner in which it has unfolded, have become something of a preoccupation. On Tuesday, after spending Monday night riveted by the latest leak, Kaya Genc, a novelist and essayist who lives in Istanbul, was up against a deadline for an essay he is writing for the Paris Review. But he was glued to his television set, watching Mr. Erdogan speak to lawmakers from his Justice and Development Party in Ankara, the Turkish capital.
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For Mr. Genc, the situation, and his inability to focus on his work amid the drumbeat of scandal, brought to mind a quote from the famous Turkish novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, whose 1960s-era comic novel "The Time Regulation Institute" was recently published in English: "Turkey does not allow its children to care for anything besides its own problems."
He added: "It's like a TV series they watch after hours. In the morning, they come to their senses and say, 'What was that all about?' But in the evening it is entertainment. 'The Magnificent Century' is the only thing that rivals these things."
On Monday night Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a research organization, was reading a book and trying to unplug from social media for one evening. But the electricity went out, and with nothing else to do he got on Twitter and saw the uproar over the latest leak.
"I was shocked, like everyone else," he said. "My first reaction was I was scared about the repercussions this will have."
He added, "If this is real, this will lead to even more decreased trust in Turkish society," particularly in the judicial system.
With several elections on the horizon, beginning with a vote for municipal leaders in March, most Turks are bracing for even more startling revelations.
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Everyone, it seems, is waiting for compromising sex tapes to emerge, a tawdry phenomenon with a history in Turkish politics, especially at election time. Already, sex tapes supposedly involving high-level officials have been delivered to some news organizations, which, for now, have shown restraint. It is probably only a matter of time before they begin showing up on social media.
On Tuesday night, thousands of protesters gathered in the Istanbul neighborhood of Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the city, chanting for the government to resign. They were dispersed with tear gas and water cannon.
After weeks of scandal, however, many here say they have simply become desensitized.
"I was not even surprised when I heard the conversation between Erdogan and hisson," said Aziz Burak Kanduz, 25, who works in the film industry in Istanbul. "It's almost a state of numbness. As a society, we are going backwards, big time."
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