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For First Time, Erdogan Faces Political Uncertainty

Will the corruption case against the Turkish prime minister harm his chances to be elected president?

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

“Why is the verdict being published three months before the elections? You could have published it on March 30. Without a doubt, the court’s decision stirs amazement.”

This was the response by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to an appeal court’s upholding of a major decision – a district court had sentenced Aziz Yildirim, the owner of the Fenerbahce soccer team, to six years and three months in prison for match fixing.

Although Erdogan might have been amazed, nothing is surprising anymore in Turkey, which is up to its neck in corruption cases.

One wonders what made Erdogan criticize the appeal court so harshly, besides the fact that Yildirim is a close friend.

It’s the same reason he suspects Turkey’s legal system as a whole, including the judges and prosecutors. He’s convinced they’re running a “parallel state,” as he put it, that aims to undermine his government and party.

Actually, Erdogan wasn’t all that surprised. After all, the prosecutor in the Yildirim affair was Zakaria Oz, the man who uncovered a recent corruption case in which three ministers and their relatives allegedly paid bribes to top government officials.

Erdogan says Oz works as do dozens of judges and prosecutors — based on the orders of Erdogan’s political and ideological rival, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States. This is the reason, Erdogan believes, the appeals court published its decision before the local elections in March.

Until the recent corruption affair, Oz served Erdogan faithfully. Unhesitating in prosecuting critical journalists, Oz was the prosecutor who headed the investigation of the Ergenekon case in which army officers, journalists and politicians have allegedly tried to topple Erdogan.

Oz was Erdogan’s legal spearhead until the rift with Gulen, after which Erdogan began working against Hizmet, the private education system of Gulen’s movement. When the allegations of bribery of ministers surfaced, Erdogan accused Oz of leaking details of the investigation and used the opportunity to purge the police and justice system of Gulen loyalists.

Dozens of police officials and officers were cashiered, prosecutors investigating corruption cases were replaced, and judges were dismissed. Oz himself was asked to transfer to another region. He refused and took Erdogan to court.

A presidential election, too

Now there’s Erdogan’s failure in the Fenerbahce affair. But even before that, when the case was still in district court, Erdogan tried to help his friend Yildirim by putting pressure on parliament — controlled by his party — to pass a law reducing the prison sentence for people convicted of corruption in sports to 3 from 12 years.

The uproar that followed caused President Abdullah Gul, a member of the ruling party, to veto the bill and send it back to parliament. Erdogan, who sees Gul as a potential rival in the presidential election this July, didn’t hide his anger. Finally, Gul agreed to sign the bill into law, but relations between the two men remained sour.

Erdogan is no stranger to the link between politics and soccer. About a year ago, the newspaper Milliyet published the details of the talks between the government and the Kurdish rebels. As usual, Erdogan was certain it was a plot by opponents of his reconciliation with the Kurds.

Milliyet is owned by Yildirim Demiroren, the son of Erdogan Demiroren, the owner of corporate giant Milangaz and a close associate of Erdogan. Yildirim Demiroren is also the president of the Turkish Football Federation and a former president of the Besiktas sports club. He bought Milliyet from tycoon Aydin Dogan, who had to sell some of his assets when the tax authorities fined him an enormous $3.5 million.

The tax authority’s attack was no accident; Aydin’s newspapers had harshly criticized Erdogan and his government, so revenge was only a matter of time. Of course, the sale of Aydin’s newspapers to Demiroren received Erdogan’s blessing. Erdogan also helped Demiroren get elected president of the Turkish Football Federation and got Aziz Yildirim, who’s now going to prison, to help him as well.

For the first time in his dozen years as prime minister, Erdogan is facing political uncertainty. Will the corruption cases affect the results of the local elections, harming his chances to be elected president?

Or will the principle of voting for Erdogan as if there were no corruption keep determining the rules of the game? In any case, this principle no longer applies in the Turkish soccer industry.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan.Credit: Reuters

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