The sex videos were grainy and filmed from odd angles.
In the starring roles: a series of middle-aged Turkish politicians chatting, smoking and rolling in bed with women who were not their wives. Some were recorded joking about how enviable the working hours of prostitutes were; others were overheard promising their mistresses the use of party-funded jeeps and other perks. In all, 10 senior members of Turkey’s Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, were targeted in three waves of video releases timed to cause maximum electoral damage just three weeks before Turkey’s June general election. All 10 have now resigned, decapitating one of Turkey’s two main opposition parties and throwing the country’s electoral arithmetic into turmoil.
Using secretly filmed sex footage for blackmail is a classic Cold War tactic (and not just in the movie From Russia with Love, where James Bond is filmed in a hotel room in Istanbul by Russian agents). Most recently sex videos were used in Russia by pro-Kremlin youth groups, reportedly with the help of the secret services, in order to discredit opposition figures and journalists in 2010. And blackmail videos made their debut on the Turkish political scene last year when the leader of another opposition party was forced to stand down after videos appeared of him sleeping with a fellow party activist.
But with this latest scandal, sex videos have hit the political big-time. Whoever produced the series clearly had plenty of time and expertise at their disposal. The films are taken in a variety of locations, all presumably scouted out and surreptitiously wired for sound and video. And the videos’ producers also seem to have a very clear political agenda; each set of films released on successive days contained ultimatums to the MHP’s leader to resign.
Conspiracies—real or imagined—are the sign of a broken political system.
Who is behind the films remains a mystery. On the face of it, it’s Turkey’s ruling party, the Islamist-rooted AKP, which has the most to gain from the MHP’s flameout. Polls show the AKP, which has been running Turkey since 2002, is set to increase its support to nearly 50 percent in the upcoming election—its highest level of support ever. The MHP, on the other hand, was set to poll just over 10 percent, the minimum required to enter parliament. But if the MHP fails to make the 10 percent threshold, the AKP would pick up many of the MHP’s seats, bringing the AKP closer to a two-thirds majority in parliament. That would allow the AKP and its ambitious leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to change the constitution and remake Turkey as a French-style presidential republic, with more powers invested in the chief executive and less in the fractious, hard-to-control parliament.
It’s certainly true that Erdogan’s ambitions are vast, and extend well beyond Turkey. Over the last five years, he’s masterminded peace deals with old Turkish enemies Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. During the Arab Spring, Erdogan was the first Middle Eastern leader to call on Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak to go. He’s also been working behind the scenes to broker a peaceful departure for Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi. At home, too, Erdogan’s unrolled a series of giant, visionary (he himself calls them “crazy”) civil-engineering projects. The biggest of all is a giant, 50-kilometer canal linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, bypassing the overcrowded Bosporus strait.
But would Erdogan stoop to turning renegade spooks loose on the opposition, Richard Nixon-style, to bolster a crushing 40-point lead? It doesn’t compute, on several levels. For one, the MHP grassroots are ultranationalist, conservative, and often religious. So, for instance, when Erdogan recently tried to legalize women students' wearing of Islamic headscarves in universities (a practice banned by the ultrasecularist military after their 1980 coup), the MHP backed him in parliament. And when Armenians were allowed to hold services in Christian cathedrals that the Turks had turned into museums, the MHP protested—by holding Islamic prayers in ruined Armenian churches. Turkey’s Islamists and ultranationalists, then, have more in common that first meets the eye. Erdogan himself has also hotly denied accusations that the AKP is behind the videos, insisting that Turkey needs “clean politics” and ordering a police and judicial investigation of the videos.
It’s ironic that the MHP, whose members are famously prone to conspiracy theorizing, should now be the target of a real conspiracy. The AKP is by no means the only possible culprit blamed by MHP leaders. Semih Yalcin, the MHP’s deputy leader, pointed the finger at a mysterious “evil axis” which enjoyed the “support of foreign forces.” Party leader Devlet Bahceli blamed groups from “beyond the Atlantic.” Other party members have named a bizarre list of enemies, including the CIA, the exiled Turkish Islamist leader Fethullah Gulen and his sympathizers in the Turkish police, and the U.S- Israel lobbies. None make much sense (both the AKP and the MHP are strongly critical of Israel, for instance).
So if it’s not the AKP (or the CIA) who organized the takedown of the MHP, then who? Here, the conspiracy theories start to multiply. “As usual, the two opposing camps in Turkey have totally opposite theories,” says veteran Turkish commentator Mustafa Akyol, with more than a hint of frustration. “Filling gaps in knowledge with presuppositions might be national pastime in Turkey, but it really is not a safe way to search for the truth.”
Ultimately, whodunit matters less than the fact that Turkish politics remains riddled with plots, conspiracies, subterfuges and double games. Four years ago, for instance, Turkey was shocked when a young lawyer gunned down a High Court judge, shouting “Allah Akbar (God is Great)!” The lawyer said he’d done it for religious reasons; Islamists were blamed for organizing the attack. Now, according to prosecutors, it emerges that the crime was planned by ultranationalists, trying to discredit the Islamists. More than 100 top former and serving army officers, judges, and journalists are currently facing trial over a complex series of interlocking bomb plots, assassinations and attacks aimed, according to prosecutors, at undermining public confidence in Turkey’s democratically elected government.
Conspiracies—real or imagined—are the sign of a broken political system. Over the last four decades, Turkish politics has been sullied by dirty fighting of every degree, from three full-scale military coups, through bloody tit-for-tat political assassinations, to, most recently, a series of attempts by Turkey’s passionately anti-religious judiciary to declare the AK Party illegal. Sex video political blackmail from the KGB playbook is an improvement of sorts, if only because nobody died. But it’s also a depressing reminder of how professionals well versed in the dark arts of surveillance and blackmail can still change the course of Turkish politics.