Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The net tightens

AKP rule in Turkey may be imploding in the wake of a series of high-profile corruption scandals, writes Sayed Abdel-Maguid in Ankara

Al-Ahram Weekly

It has been six months since a first wave of angry anti-government protests swept Turkey, initially triggered by the forceful break-up of a peaceful sit-in in Gezi Park adjacent to Taksim Square in central Istanbul.

That wave has now risen again, and this time round while it may be heading in a different direction the substance is the same and even more intense: seething anger against the government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The source of the fury is not just the religious orientation of the ruling party but also the presence of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at its heart. The latter has long been the subject of widespread criticism, epitomised by a number of books that went on to become best-sellers, among them Ergün Poyraz’s “Takunyali Führer” (The Fuhrer with Wooden Clogs), a work that compares Erdogan with Hitler, and “Musa’nin Çocuklari Tayyip ve Emine” (Moses’s Children: Tayyip and Emine [Erdogan’s wife]), which has gone into its 18th printing since it appeared in 2007.

Yet, it is still doubtful that Erdogan would have imagined that he would ever see his picture on a packet of cigarettes with the message “dangerous to health” stamped on it.

The irony has been that Erdogan’s response to such criticisms has only further corroborated his widely-perceived authoritarianism, and the Turkish police have begun to arrest those participating in anti-government demonstrations, targeting in particular those calling for the “resignation of the thieves,” in other words members of the AKP government. Those found guilty of such criticisms have been fined YTL 343 (about $170).

The question arises that if ordinary people feel this way, what is the mood among the more privileged and, particularly, among members of parliament who enjoy legal immunity.

According to many observers, this mood is equally vehement. One MP has proclaimed that Erdogan will meet the same fate as Hitler, while another, Ertan Aydin, a university professor known for his work on democratisation in Turkey, has described Erdogan as “the most dictatorial leader in the history of the Turkish Republic,” surpassing both Ismet Inonu, who served as prime minister between 1938 and 1950, and Kanan Evrin, who led the 1980 military coup and headed the government from 1983 to 1989.

These are rocky times for the Turkish government, and commentators are unconvinced that Erdogan will be able to handle them. As one source told Al-Ahram Weekly, “those in power are up to their ears in corruption. The cabinet reshuffle, which included ten out of the 25 ministers, means nothing. The prime minister himself should resign because Turks are fed up with this government.”

Even Erdogan’s supporters find it difficult to hide their dismay at the way he has responded to the investigations into corruption allegations, notably by purging the police and judiciary officials that were carrying out the investigations. As one person put it, “those people were put into their positions by Erdogan himself, so he has no right to complain now.”

Meanwhile, the country’s opposition parties have been supporting and even leading demonstrations calling for the AKP government — now in power for 10 years — to resign. These began peacefully in major cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Eski Sahir, Malatya and Izmir. However, the forceful attempts by the riot police to disperse the demonstrators have led to violent clashes, which have already resulted in the death of one civilian, reviving painful memories of the excessive use of force in the break-up of the Gezi Park demonstrations, leading to six fatalities and the death of a policeman in Diyarbakir in September.

However, not only is the AKP beleaguered by the opposition, it is also crumbling from within, a development that sets this wave of anti-government anger apart from the first. Sharp rifts have begun to split the ruling party, which many had believed was immune to rupture, these beginning with Hakan Ukür, a member of Turkey’s famous Galatasaray football team.

A conservative whose wife and daughters all wear the veil, Ukür heeded the appeal of his spiritual guru, Mohamed Fethullah Gülen, now residing in Pennsylvania in the US, to join the ruling AKP, even though he was not politically active. But when Gülen recently came under attack from the Erdogan wing in the AKP, Ukür needed no prompting into resigning from the AKP and making it plain that he regretted ever joining it.

This rupture between Erdogan and Gülen has been at the core of the AKP’s current dilemma, since Gülen has long been a strong backer of the prime minister, and, with the 500 schools he has founded in Turkey and the dozens of newspapers and satellite TV channels that he owns, has been a very influential supporter of the AKP. However, Erdogan, who has little tolerance for criticism, reacted to criticism from his long-term friend and ally and moved to take control of Gülen’s schools, turning them into public institutions. This led to an open breach between Gülen and Erdogan.

Then came the resignation of the former minister of the interior, Idriss Naim Sahin, who resented having been removed from his post apparently at the whim of the party leader. Sahin apparently told his successor, Muammer Güler, that “I hope you manage to stay in the post longer than I did,” though this wish did not come true as Güler was compelled to tender his resignation when his son was named in a major corruption scandal that appears to lead straight to the centre of the powers-that-be in Ankara.

The AKP then reeled under an even greater shock. Not only did the minister of the environment, Erdogan Bayraktar, have to tender his resignation against the backdrop of this scandal, the likes of which Turkey has not experienced since the Kemalist republic was founded, but he also took the occasion to announce that the prime minister should also heed the call of the Turkish people and resign, and not just from government, but from politics altogether.

The Turkish parliament has also seen a spate of AKP resignations. Particularly notable have been those of Haluk Özdalga, an AKP MP from Ankara, Erdal Kalkan, from Izmir, and Ertugrul Günay, a former minister of culture, all of whom were close associates of the AKP leader. Within days, the number of resignations in parliament had climbed to seven, bringing the AKP bloc down from 327 to 320 seats. Some observers believe that this is only the trickle that precedes the flood and anticipate a spate of mass demonstrations in the days ahead.

Many of these resignations might be a response to the government’s attempts not just to stem the fall-out from the corruption scandal investigations but also to stem the investigations themselves. Late last week, the chief prosecutor for Istanbul, Turhan Güle, announced that he had taken public prosecutor Muammer Akas off the investigation into the corruption scandals. Akas had earlier issued warrants for the arrest of 30 individuals suspected of involvement in what has been described as a “web of corruption” surrounding the housing and construction industry, and he had said that the police were being kept from carrying out their instructions while condemning the pressures being brought against the judiciary.

Every passing day seems to bring to light new scandals. Most recent was the news of illicit gold-trading with Iran, in spite of the international sanctions against the country.

According to reports in the Turkish press, the alleged architect and middleman in the deals was Zarrab Reza, an Azerbaijani businessman who helped disguise the financial transactions involved via the Halk Bank, which is directed by Suleiman Aslan. When US ambassador to Turkey Francis J. Ricciardoni brought up the likelihood of such dealings in a meeting with EU ambassadors, Erdogan flew into one of his trademark fits of temper and threatened to expel the ambassador from the country.

Meanwhile, other corruption investigations are under way into alleged acts of embezzlement and abuse of authority in tenders involving real estate construction projects. A third course of investigation has homed in on the municipal chief of the Fatih district of Istanbul, Mustafa Demir. A close associate of Erdogan reputed for his piety, Demir faces charges of accepting bribes in exchange for issuing construction permits for projects that would otherwise have been prohibited in the historical Fatih area of the city.

The government had earlier issued a decree intended to alter investigative procedures by compelling the police authorities to notify officials before executing warrants or carrying out other procedures involved in the investigations. However, the Turkish Supreme Court then struck down the decree on the grounds that it would inflict “irreparable damage” on judicial autonomy.

EU commissioner Stephen Foley has agreed. He has welcomed the Court ruling, stating that altering the rules of investigative procedures in Turkey would “hamper the work of the country’s judiciary.” The EU has been concerned by the corruption crisis in Turkey that has extended to the prime minister’s closest circles, and it has urged Ankara to handle it transparently and impartially.

Naturally, such scandals have riveted the attention of the Turkish press and elicited an unprecedented level of criticism in a media that had earlier largely been tamed into submission. On Saturday, the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet urged Erdogan to relinquish his policy of “refusing to hand over his retinue to justice” and warned that the crisis “will destroy not only you but all of us.” However, Erdogan remains deaf to such appeals, charging that the people who accuse the government of corruption are themselves corrupt.

Writing in Zaman, a newspaper owned by Gülen, Erdogan’s one-time friend and ally and now his enemy, Mümtaz’er Türköne recently called on Erdogan to resign, saying that this was the only way in which the crisis could be handled. As for the attempts to purge the police and the war that Erdogan has unleashed against the judiciary, these would only aggravate the destruction, Türköne wrote, adding that “the developments we have been experiencing recently portend anarchy. There will come a time when the government will no longer be able to manage the country... Nor will the plan that Erdogan has in mind of bringing the elections forward solve these problems. In fact, they will only aggravate the chaos.” 

As the taint of corruption has widened, it has begun to encompass not just Erdogan’s friends and associates but also members of his immediate family. Some months ago, his son-in-law came under suspicion of shady business deals. But a greater surprise was in store in late December, when it was leaked that the prosecution had issued a summons to the prime minister’s son, Bilal Erdogan. According to an opposition newspaper, Bilal had fled to neighbouring Georgia in fear of imminent arrest.

It was just under a decade ago that the Turkish media feasted on Bilal’s wedding, taking particular delight in the scene in which former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had kissed the hand of the bride who had tried in vain to withdraw her hand as the scion of the recently elected Erdogan looked on at a loss to know what to do in the face of this impropriety.

Today, many must be wondering how they could have let themselves be deceived by the seeming humility of this young man, who has now become a “fugitive from justice,” in the words of one newspaper, after having learned of the summons notifying him to report on 2 January for questioning in relation to allegations of involvement in acts of fraud and bribery connected with 28 tenders for some $100 billion worth of construction projects.

The current crisis goes deeper than the political rifts in the ruling party and the cloud of corruption hanging over the families of the ruling elite. The Islamist-oriented camp is also fissuring in unexpected and unpredictable ways, and new players are emerging. Although born in the embrace of the AKP, there are indications that these may soon break ranks on the grounds that the party is not applying “God’s law”.

In one of Istanbul’s older districts, for example, those in charge of the local municipal council recently issued an edict instructing residents not to celebrate New Year’s Eve on the grounds that this was an irreligious celebration inappropriate to an Islamic city that for nine decades had served as the capital of the Ottoman caliphate.

Although this council is manned by AKP members, it appears that they acted independently without instructions from the party leadership. Particularly worrisome, however, has been the fact that some young activists have taken it upon themselves to enforce the edict. It was such youths that drummed up the rallies to cheer on Erdogan during his recent tours of the country and paraded through the streets to protest against the dismissal of Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi and cheer Erdogan’s charge of a “military coup” in Egypt. Are they now about to turn against their former master?

There remains one point worth recalling in this sorry context of corruption scandals and the interplay between money, power, politics and politicking in the name of religion. Five years ago, AKP duo Abdullah Gül and Erdogan turned against their former friend and mentor, the founder of Turkey’s Islamist parties, Necmettin Erbakan. However, on becoming president Gül apparently took pity on Erbakan and pardoned him from charges of embezzling millions of dollars.


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