Analysis |

Will Graft Scandal Stick to Erdogan, the Teflon Turk?

He's run Turkey for a decade without interference, but scandal may have clouded his presidential chances in 2014.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

When three top ministers quit, right after the resignation of two members of parliament from the ruling party; when 170 senior police officers are dismissed from their posts or fired, prosecutors replaced and journalists attacked; when the prime minister and his political and ideological rival across the ocean exchange curses, the situation in Turkey begins to recall the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

Or at least, that’s how Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rivals are trying to present his third and final term in office. “Erdogan the sultan”; “an ambitious man creating neo-Ottoman policy”; “a megalomaniac who knows no limits, who instead of renewing the empire will cause its downfall” – these are just a few of the sobriquets Erdogan has earned lately, especially since the brutal repression of the public demonstrations near Istanbul’s Gezi Park last May-June.

Erdogan isn’t taking the name-calling to heart. Sometimes he even seems to enjoy the fact that all his rivals have left is fancy rhetoric with which to attack him, but no ability to present a real political challenge.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the republican opposition party, is considered even within his own party as lacking charisma – to put it mildly – and – to put it correctly – lacking leadership qualities. His criticism of Erdogan usually slides straight over the thick layer of Teflon with which the prime minister is seemingly coated.

Yet the most recent affair, exposing the depth of the police inquiry into highly placed suspects regarding a bribery case, is looking like a real war.

The involvement of three senior ministers in the matter made Erdogan’s blood boil. Though the brunt of the blame falls on the ministers’ sons – who allegedly offered bribes and tempted the director of Turkey’s state-owned bank, Halkbank, which managed/still manages the accounts of the Iranian regime – clearly the “sons” would have found it difficult to allegedly bribe senior officials were it not for their respectable names.

Safety harness

These ministers were Erdogan’s main safety harness: Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan was for years instrumental in designing the successful economic policies that made Erdogan popular; Interior Minister Muammer Guler provided, among other things, the political calm characterizing most of the prime minister’s term; and Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdogan Bayraktar is close to Erdogan personally.

Erdogan knew of the investigation, but was convinced his mechanisms would be able at least to prevent it leaking to the press, and later would dispel its effects. But this belief wasn’t really based on anything: The police and prosecution apparatuses are full of supporters of Fethullah Gulen, and for months have been searching for a chance to harm Erdogan.

The tension between Erdogan’s rule and the social-religious movement supported by millions of Turks reached its peak late last spring, when thousands of protesters filled Istanbul’s Taksim Square and other Turkish cities – first because of the government’s intention to turn Gezi Park into a commercial center, then in protest against what they defined as “the government’s intrusion into the bedrooms of its citizens.”

The laws limiting the sale of alcohol, alongside the call that women give birth to three children, brought out not only young secular people but also many of Gulen’s supporters, who adhere to a moderate, liberal and, mostly, social version of Islam.

Erdogan, who initially took an uncompromising stance against the protesters, quickly realized that not only was his own popularity in danger, but also that of his party and supporters – whom he’ll need in the local council elections set for March 2014, and, particularly, the June 2014 elections, when Erdogan plans to run for president.

The protests also exposed, in an unprecedented way, the tensions between Erdogan and Gulen, the leader of the religious-social movement Hizmet (“Service”). In 1999, upon realizing the army was about to arrest him, Gulen emigrated to Philadelphia, where he set up his center of activity.

Gulen, who gave interviews to Turkish media outlets last spring – particularly the ones he owns – had no compassion for his former political partner, accusing him of brutal conduct toward the demonstrators.

This wasn’t the first time Gulen had attacked Erdogan. In 2010, following the Gaza flotilla raid – when nine Turkish activists were killed after Israeli forces boarded the Mavi Marmara – Gulen said “it was a mistake on the part of the government not to coordinate the flotilla with Israel.”

Erdogan reacted with forbearance and denied there was a rift between himself and Gulen, who runs his movement as if it were a religious order. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” he said, shaking off the criticism as if Gulen were a journalist or junior politician, and not a man who holds in his hands such broad political and economic power.

But Erdogan’s seeming self-restraint soon broke down when he made two other decisions that again shocked the public: One regarding the prohibition he seeks to place on coed student dormitories; the other aimed directly at Gulen’s soft spot – closing the institutions preparing students for university entrance exams. About a quarter of these 4,000 institutions belong to Gulen’s movement; they have tens of thousands of students and provide a major source of revenue for his movement.

Erdogan explained his decision as a wish to create equality between rich and poor students, but Gulan wasn’t the only person attacking him this time. Public figures, including President Abdullah Gul, couldn’t understand why Erdogan chose to pinpoint these schools while modern Turkey has hundreds of private schools operating alongside the public-school system.

Among the Turkish citizenry, the decision was seen as a personal campaign of retribution against Gulen, and, unprecedentedly, the two men exchanged blows in the press.

The reaction from the Gulen camp arrived when “someone” leaked the details of the corruption case investigation to the press.

Erdogan, who for years has tried to present himself and his party as symbols of moral rectitude, was faced this time with undeniable facts, arrests and investigations involving top party members. At first he tried to claim, as he did during the demonstrations in Istanbul, that this was “a dark conspiracy” of external forces aiming to bring down the government.

“Sources close to the prime minister” even accused the U.S. government of meddling in Turkish internal affairs and pushing for the publication of the investigation. Washington was quick to deny the allegations, and on Wednesday even released an official statement rejecting the claims of pro-government Turkish reporters who wrote about American involvement in the affair.

Greatest challenge

Even the coarse kick administered by Erdogan to the police did not obviate the need for a quick damage-control effort: the ministers suspected of involvement in the affair were asked to resign. Two of them declared that they had resigned in protest against the investigation itself. “I left my position in order to disrupt this ugly game and let the facts come out,” said Economy Minister Caglayan. But it was Environment Minister Bayraktar who called the government’s bluff, telling reporters he was forced to resign to protect the state’s prestige. The minister did not balk at calling for Erdogan’s resignation.

The bribery affair is the greatest challenge Erdogan has faced since becoming prime minister 10 years ago. This time, it is his own image that may be tarnished, rather than that of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), from which a number of members have resigned in recent days.

Top party members fear that the complete identification between Erdogan and his party may hurt its future chances – and their own. There are those who have been considering a new strategy that would differentiate between Erdogan and the party. The problem is the difficulty in finding a prominent candidate, either within the party or among its rivals, who can compete against Erdogan and win.

The person who will soon have to make a fateful decision is the country’s president, Gul. The president has hinted that he may run for the presidency again – competing against Erdogan – in a contest that could divide the party and plunge Turkey into a whirlpool that will shake its political stability and influence its economic condition.

At this point, we should wait and see whether Gulen is holding any other explosive ammunition, or if the bribery affair is this political war’s final shot.

Protestors clash with Turkish riot policemen on May 31, 2013 during a protest against the demolition of the Taksim Gezi Park in Taksim Square in Istanbul. Credit: AFP
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media in Ankara September 30, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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