Corruption scandal poses threat to Turkey's leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan

With three ministers quitting over a corruption probe, the grip on power of Turkey's leader since 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is slipping away

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:21am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 7:49am

A corruption investigation that has encircled the Turkish government moved an ominous step closer to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week.

One of the top ministers who resigned said, on his way out of the door, that Erdogan should step down as well.

The words from one of the three departing ministers were considered stunning, coming from a political party known for silencing dissent.

It instantly raised the significance of the entire inquiry and left members of the Turkish public wondering if they were witnessing the collapse of their Islamist-rooted government of the past decade.

"Now it seems the situation has changed completely," said Kerem Oktem, a Turkey expert and research fellow at the European Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. "It seems the ring around Erdogan has become tighter."

The investigation became public earlier this month with dawn police raids on the offices of businessmen and others close to the prime minister.

But last week was the first time that someone who had been in Erdogan's hierarchy left the strong implication of the prime minister's entanglements in some of the real estate deals at the heart of the case.

The inquiry has targeted the ministers' sons, a major construction tycoon with links to Erdogan and municipal workers.

It centres in part on allegations that officials received bribes in exchange for ignoring zoning rules and approving contentious development projects. No one has been convicted, but the issue has struck a nerve among the Turkish public.

Analysts questioned whether Erdogan can weather the crisis by blaming foreign powers, appealing to the religious sentiments of supporters and evoking the ghosts of Turkey's past by likening the crisis to the war for independence it fought after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

Rumours in the local media say more damaging allegations from the investigation are on their way and link directly to Erdogan and his family.

"The prime minister is trying to take precautions against something that could be bigger," said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, head of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a research organisation.

Unluhisarcikli said that as the investigation inches closer to Erdogan personally, he will "have more difficulty containing the damage".

The public has been riveted by a flow of sordid details of the investigations leaked to the news media, with photos of piles of cash in the bedroom of a minister's son and reports that the chief executive of a state-owned bank had US$4.5 million in cash packed in shoeboxes.

But the government then changed regulations for the police, requiring officers to report evidence, investigations, arrests and complaints to commanding officers and prosecutors.

Journalists have been banned from police stations. And the Hurriyet Daily News said up to 550 police officers, including senior commanders, had been dismissed in the past week by Interior Minister Muammer Guler, who has now resigned.

Erdogan's critics see an authoritarian streak in his rule.

The European Union, to which Turkey has long sought accession, urged Ankara to safeguard the separation of powers.

"The only way you can explain an interior minister removing the police chiefs working in an investigation regarding his own family is that the aim is to obstruct evidence," said Koray Caliskan, an associate professor at Istanbul's Bogazici University.

"The prime minister thinks Turkish people are not very clever, but he will be slapped hard at the ballot box."

Turkey's next parliamentary election is not until 2015.

But with local ballots looming, pollsters say the scandal's so-far modest erosion of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials AKP) could gather momentum.

"If the allegations are true, this would without doubt be the deepest crisis the government has faced," said Murat Yetkin, editor in chief and political commentator for the Hurriyet.

But many observers say it's too early to write off the savvy politician who has weathered a series of crises since his Islamic-based party took power in 2002.

Erdogan, 59, was long hailed as a transformational leader who took office in March, 2003, on a promise to fight corruption and carried out spectacular economic and political reforms.

He turned Turkey into a relatively stable and prosperous country, curtailing the powers of the military and raising the nation's international profile.

More recently, though, critics say he has cut a more authoritarian and erratic figure, often reverting to conspiracy theories to deal with crises.

Those tactics have damaged his image as an international statesman.

In comments published last week, Erdogan said he believes he is the ultimate target of the probe, but declared that those trying to enmesh him in the scandal will be left "empty-handed".

He has blamed the scandal on a rival Islamic movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who is living in self-imposed exile in the US. Gulen has denied any involvement.

In a televised speech, Erdogan used some of his strongest language yet to denounce his former allies in the Gulen movement and promised to dismiss them. "We will root out the bad apples or whatever is necessary," he said.

Erdogan has also suggested the US is behind the investigation, prompting American officials to warn the government not to endanger ties between the close Nato allies with unfounded allegations. A major worry for Erdogan now is that anger with his administration will spread to the streets, as it did last summer with the violent suppression of demonstrators trying to protect a beloved park in Istanbul from development.

Gulen, a reclusive Muslim preacher who lives in Pennsylvania, leads one of the most influential Islamic movements in the world. He has millions of followers and an expansive network of business, media outlets and schools, as well as sympathisers who are believed to have a strong influence over Turkey's police and judiciary.

In the past, the Gulen movement has provided vital support to the conservative, Islam-inspired government of Erdogan, and the Gulen-affiliated media have attacked common opponents and backed controversial trials that Erdogan has publicly supported.

But in recent years, a rift has appeared to have grown between the men, as Gulen has challenged Erdogan in key areas, including foreign policy.

Gulen, who rarely gives interviews, has emphatically denied any involvement in the investigation. His sympathisers have also said that the characterisation of Gulen as an influential puppet master over the Turkish state are exaggerated and aimed at undermining the movement.

In another setback for Erdogan, a prominent AKP lawmaker who was a former interior minister resigned from the party - not because he was implicated in the corruption probe but because he was disgusted by how the government was handling it.

"It seems that within the AKP things are spiralling out of control," said Oktem, the research fellow at Oxford.

The New York Times, Reuters, Bloomberg, Associated Press