Corruption case shakes Turkey
Övgü Pinar - 01/01/2014
Turkish cities are scene to anti-government protests once again, a few months after the Gezi Park riots that lasted all summer. This time however the reason behind the protests is potentially destructive for the government: a high-profile corruption scandal that includes ministers and businessmen close to the ruling AKP. And the way the scandal surfaced hints that if it’s not the voters who wave Erdogan goodbye, it may be his past allies, the religious “Gülen” community, to put the nail in his coffin.
The corruption scandal broke out on December 17, with a surprise operation by the police against sons of 3 ministers, leading businessmen and officials as well as the head of the state bank, all said to be engaged in corruption, bribery, tender-rigging and illicit money transfers to Iran. In the raids, $4.5 million in cash stored in shoeboxes were found in the house of head of the state controlled Halkbank.
The aftershocks of the operation that sent tremors to the government were perhaps even more controversial than the arrests. The Prime Minister, instead of assuring the citizens that he will fight corruption, vowed to fight against those who started this investigation. In a few days, tens of police officers involved in the case were dismissed, the prosecutor was removed from the case, and almost after one week three ministers whose sons were charged resigned from their positions. As if to hide these resignations, Prime Minister Erdoğan made an overall cabinet shake-up, changing 10 ministers.
Sons of Interior Minister Muammer Güler and Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan were arrested pending trial, while Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar’s son was released after being detained. And it was this minister who, while obeying the “orders” from the prime minister to resign, left the scene “not with a whimper but with a bang”.
Erdoğan Bayraktar, announcing his resignation on a live broadcast, sent thunderbolts on the prime minister declaring that it was the prime minister himself that requested the topics that are now subject to the investigation. Bayraktar said “I do not accept the pressure being put on me which says, ‘Resign because of an operation in which there are statements of bribery and corruption and release a declaration that will relieve me. I do not [accept that] because a big part of the zoning plans that are in the investigation file and were confirmed, were made with approval from Mr. Prime Minister.” He went on to say that “for the sake of the well-being of this nation and country, I believe the prime minister should resign.”
Power struggle between the ex-allies
Soon there were reports in the media claiming that there will be a second phase of the investigation focusing on the wrongdoings of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son. And Prime Minister Erdoğan said the real aim of the investigation is to hurt himself. Erdoğan also indicated some foreign hand that was behind the operations, turning heads to his ex-ally Fethullah Gülen, influential leader of a potent religious community (Cemaat), living in the US.
The scandal is believed to stem from a power struggle between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, who has many followers within Turkey's police and judiciary.
The fallout between the ex-allies first came into the open in February 2012 when a prosecutor summoned head of the intelligence agency (MIT), Hakan Fidan, as a suspect over alleged negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the European Union. There was talk that the followers of Fethullah Gülen could be behind the move, as the Cemaat was against the negotiations.
But the most severe and public fight between Erdoğan and the Gülen community broke with government’s decision to close cram schools (dershane). Gülen followers have almost 1000 such schools in Turkey and their closure would mean loss of a great amount of money and, perhaps most importantly, loss of human resources for the community. Gülen community is accused of using these schools, which mainly serve to prepare the students to university entrance exams, to “brainwash” the youth and gain new followers. So the decision of the government to close these schools was a deadly blow to the community and analysts suggest that they decided to fight back by attacking the government, hence the corruption case came out…
The fact that the police most probably knew about the corruption since a long time but chose to move only now, after the fight broke with the government, causes controversy and leads to suspicion that there may be a “parallel state” inside the state, ruled by a shadowy organisation.
Therefore, even some of the most fervent opponents of the AKP government are cautious about the corruption investigation. Nedim Şener, an internationally renowned journalist who was jailed for more than one year in pretrial detention with the charge of trying to bring down the government, told Al Monitor website: “The government can’t stay in charge after such a scandal. It is best that it resign, but the corruption issue is now secondary. One really needs to see that the Cemaat is actually directly aiming at Erdoğan. It simply showcases that it has grown so strong that it can even bring down the country’s prime minister when it wants to”. He says, “People need to acknowledge the two wrongdoings here: Corruption is wrong, and what the Cemaat is doing is also wrong.”
What will the voters say?
With local elections in March 2014, everyone is trying to imagine what sort of an effect the corruption case could have on the ballot box. While protesters on the streets demand the prime minister to resign, they are mostly silenced by security forces using harsh methods that took many lives in the Gezi protests. But, whether the protestors will achieve what they want at the ballot box will be seen in a few months.
Some commentators say that Erdoğan is left fighting for his political life. A Financial Times headline read “Turkish prime minister loses aura of invincibility” after the corruption case. But an article on Washington Post blogs could give a hint as to the effect of the scandal on voters in future elections:
“In recently published research in the journal Electoral Studies, (researchers) used two survey experiments to examine the effect of corruption on voting behavior in a high corruption country (Moldova) and a low corruption country (Sweden). In both cases, respondents were asked how they would expect a citizen to vote in an election for a hypothetical mayor and were provided with two pieces of information. The first piece of information concerned whether economic conditions had improved or gotten worse in the mayor’s city; the second concerned allegations of either corrupt behavior in the city or actions on behalf of the mayor to fight corruption.
The results were illuminating. In Sweden, voters punished the mayor for corruption regardless of the state of the economy. In Moldova, however, voters punished the mayor for corruption only when the economy was also bad. When economic conditions had improved, however, voters appeared less concerned about corruption.
(The researchers) interpreted these findings as reflecting different realities. In a country like Sweden where corruption is less prevalent, any corrupt behavior is punished as unacceptable. In Moldova, where corruption is much more prevalent, voters may be more willing to tolerate corruption if the mayor can prove himself or herself “competent” along another dimension such as economic performance. Only when the mayor also proves to be a failure in terms of managing the economy do voters in the study also punish corruption.”
With Turkey ranking the 55th most clean country out of 177 in the Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, perhaps it all depends on how the economic outlook of Turkey is perceived by the voters.