Foreign leaders, rivals and allies, often find it useful to take anti-American positions, but Turkish prime minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan has taken the rarest of steps in threatening to sue the U.S. State Department in both national and international courts for defamation. At issue is the insinuation, laid out in U.S. diplomatic cables purloined by WikiLeaks, that Erdoğan is corrupt.
“We have heard from two contacts that Erdoğan has eight accounts in Swiss banks,” former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman wrote in a cable dated December 30, 2004. “[H]is explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdoğan children in the U.S. purely altruistically are lame.”
Erdoğan angrily denied the allegation. “I don’t have a penny in the Swiss banks,” he said last Wednesday in a speech in Ankara. “The moment you prove it, I won’t remain in this occupation; won’t stay as a representative [in the Parliament].” Nonetheless, one former AKP member, Abdüllatif Şener, suggested on Sunday that the American assessment concerning the party’s rampant corruption was acurate. “The WikiLeaks documents,” said Şener, “revealed why I quit my ministerial position.”
Even as Erdoğanmaintains that Turkey is much better off today than it was before he came to power, it’s hardly surprising that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the chairman of the main opposition party, CHP, disagrees. Since Erdoğan took office, Kılıçdaroğlu argues, corruption has "increased at the fastest pace in the history of the republic.”
Kılıçdaroğlu rose to prominence when the investigations he called for in parliament brought down two prominent AKP officials. He has also demanded the investigation of corruption allegations several times over the past six years, but the AKP blocked them all. No probe is likely to begin unless the ruling party loses either public support or the next election.
And this seems to be the point: It is in order to galvanize his domestic base for the elections seven months away that Erdoğan is threatening to take the State Department to court. (Edelman, whom Erdoğan has singled out, wrote to me in an email: “Since he is threatening legal action, which I take very seriously, the State Department will have to respond on our behalf.”) With elections looming, Erdoğan calculates that a populist dose of anti-Americanism might ensure a third term for the AKP.
Turks, Erdoğan explained last week, are being used as pawns in an international tug-of-war. In this view, the “gossip” and “slander” of foreign diplomats is proof that there are many who don’t want to accept Turkey’s rising star in the Middle East and around the world.
But here’s the rub: Erodgan can only push it so far for the last thing he wants at election time is a public debate that may spin out of his control. The WikiLeaks story will eventually fade away but a legal case against American diplomats would keep the allegations of AKP corruption front and center—the same allegations that so unnerved him in the first place.
Tülin Daloğlu is a Turkish journalist based in Washington.