The Middle East Channel

Fire and Brimstone: Turkey's Prime Minister Isn't Backing Down, Corruption Charges Be Damned

Threatened by a corruption scandal that has embraced the inner circle of his government, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hurling fire and brimstone at long-time enemies, one-time allies, and maneuvering to end a graft investigation that has challenged his decade-plus grip on power. Yet beyond that blind fury, Erdogan is gaining a firm upper hand against the investigation that has exposed his government, cracking down on an influential religious movement opposing his rule, and is almost certain to retain a strong electoral advantage when Turks head to the polls later in 2014.

Turkey's political landscape was rocked by an anti-corruption investigation in December 2013, when police arrested the sons of three government ministers, the head of a state bank, and other figures linked closely with the prime minister. The three implicated ministers soon announced their resignations, an earthquake intensified by one departing cabinet member's call on Erdogan to join them in resigning.

Erdogan has instead doubled down, replacing his cabinet and launching a campaign of partisan denunciations and base-rallying stump speeches. Dismissing the case as "an assassination attempt disguised as an investigation," he and pro-government pundits have variously laid blame on the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, as well as on Israel and murky forces as far afield as the Vatican.

Much of Erdogan's withering criticism has been reserved for his one-time ally. Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who leads a substantial Turkish following from self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, once helped underpin the Islamic coalition that brought Turkey's ruling party to power. But after a murky, years-long power struggle, Erdogan is accusing Gulen of using the judiciary and police -- which the prime minister and many secular Turks claim are controlled by Gulen -- of striking back against his rule. "We will reach into your caverns," Erdogan recently declared, promising to reveal and punish an "illegal gang operating within the state."

As Erdogan searches for enemies within and abroad, however, his biggest enemy is increasingly himself, according to newspaper columnist Cengiz Aktar. "Erdogan doesn't seem to have a plan, he is simply following his instincts, fighting back against everyone," said Akdar. "He's looking more and more alone as this case develops."

But it would be a mistake to discount Erdogan. A keen political street fighter, the prime minister has, in his 11 years in power, survived challenges from Turkey's coup-minded military, weathered a court case which nearly closed his party in 2008, and in 2013 successfully -- if brutally -- put down countrywide protests against his rule. During Turkey's summer of mass street demonstrations, Erdogan was roundly criticized for his conspiracy theory-laden, go-for-broke attempt to discredit protesters. But the strategy worked: national support for demonstrators remained low, and polls registered no noticeable decline in support for Erdogan. 

The strategy may work yet again, said Murat Sari, managing director of Konsensus Research & Consultancy. "Erdogan remains in a strong electoral position in the coming year. There isn't hard evidence that support for his party is dropping yet," he said, predicting that Erdogan's polling numbers will be threatened only "if there are consistent revelations of corruption over the coming year."

Erdogan, however, appeared this week to be edging closer to halting the graft case in its tracks. On January 2, Erdogan's son, Bilal Erdogan, flaunted a court summons over the investigation, while police remained in open defiance of a week-old court order for a second round of arrests. On December 27, prosecutors ordered the arrests of Bilal and dozens of other Erdogan-linked figures, and have complained that the prime minister has directly interfered by ordering police not to cooperate. "The moves against this case are in bold defiance of the rule of law," said a representative from Turkey's High Council of Judges and Prosecutors. It may be of little wonder that police are refusing to act: Ankara has removed over 700 police officers from their posts since the beginning of the investigation, reshuffling nearly 300 of them in the last week alone, the Turkish daily Taraf claimed this week.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has additionally proposed new legislation that may also impede investigations. One recently introduced bill would deprive the Council of State, Turkey's highest court, of its right to veto an executive order. That measure comes after the court shot down an executive order commanding that Turkey's police notify Ankara before launching a criminal inquiry. Another bill up for parliamentary debate next week seeks to add a new cadre of judges to the Council of State, effectively "court packing" the defiant legal body.

If the prime minister succeeds in containing the judiciary, the Gulen movement -- which owns Turkey's largest circulation newspaper, Zaman, and other significant media holdings -- is likely to battle on. It has fought a long-simmering conflict with Ankara over its turn away from Israel and toward Arab Spring states, its negotiations for peace with Kurdish separatists, and above all, its move to close a vast, Gulen-owned network of prep schools that fund the movement. Last month, Gulen denounced the government for removing police from the investigation, declaring in a sermon, "let God bring fire to their houses, ruin their homes, break their unities."

The confrontation looked set to escalate further on January 2, when the government opened the first official investigation over the influence of the Gulen movement over the country's judiciary. That would heap even more strain on the unity of Erdogan's AKP, which has seen four Gulen-alligned deputies resign in the past month. The conflict has driven speculation that, as elections near, Gulen-aligned prosecutors will leak evidence of government corruption to further discredit the government. "In the coming months, we well see the sewer pipes bubbling up," speculated political analyst Soli Ozel.

Alleged evidence of government wrongdoing already seems well in the public domain. Police claim to have found $4.5 million worth of cash-stuffed shoeboxes in the home of state lender Halkbank's CEO, as well as an undisclosed amount of cash in the bedroom of Baris Guler, the son of Turkey's interior minister. Corruption allegations span from money laundering that enabled $120 billion worth of gold transactions with sanctions-hit Iran, to misallocation of funds in the health ministry, and widespread bid-rigging in the county's massive public housing contracts. Corruption in the latter would almost certainly implicate the prime minister, who personally oversees the state housing authority. The now resigned urban minister, Erdogan Bayraktar, hinted at that possibility shortly after stepping down, telling a state broadcaster that "the majority of construction plans in the current investigation were carried out with the approval of the prime minister."

But there are several reasons the allegations may prove less damaging. In 2013, Bayraktar admitted before parliament that the government's housing authority had already witnessed tens of millions of dollars worth of graft, explicitly implicating KC Group, one government-favored company. The revelation failed to cause public outrage or lead to an official investigation. Many Erdogan supporters cite corruption as an inevitable cancer of Turkish politics, regardless of the leader. "Corruption is the nature of the state. Power means corruption," said Yakup Erenler, a geriatric who lives in the workaday Istanbul neighborhood of Kasimpasa, where the prime minister spent his own hardscrabble youth. In the Bosporus-side district of Karakoy, Hamdi Soganci said he supports the AKP as "the greatest anti-corruption party in Turkish history." When AKP came to power in 2002, it swept legions of petty "mafia" and extortionists from Istanbul's streets. "Today nobody can take your money just because you have a business or want to park a car on their street." Politics, he emphasized, is local.

Erdogan's greatest defense may lay in his opponents' lack of offense. Turkey's wooden-headed opposition parties have failed to capitalize on current corruption scandals to gain in the polls, and Gulen supporters are highly unlikely to find an alliance with Turkey's secularists or ultra nationalists.

If Erdogan has a clear rival, it is President Abdullah Gul, who has warned in recent days that the government must have "respect for the rule of law" and defended the rights of an independent judiciary. Both Gul and Erdogan are widely expected to run for president this year, and Gul maintains a higher public approval rating than Erdogan. But if Erdogan thinks he may lose the race, he still has other options, said political analyst Ozel. According to Ozel, the prime minister could annul a party bylaw that forbids him from serving a fourth term as prime minister, rush forward parliamentary elections, and cling to power through the prime ministry.

"It's undeniable that Erdogan is going to face more and more opposition in the coming months," said Ozel. Erdogan, however, is sure to keep a tight grip on the power he has. "This is going to be a battle that is unnecessarily long, bloody, and ugly. In the end, the victim will be Turkey's democratic institutions."

Noah Blaser is a journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. Follow him on Twitter: @nblaser18.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images


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