Corruption Scandal Closing in on Erdogan After Telephone Tapes

If proven authentic, these calls could foment the political revolution that the Turkish opposition has sought in vain for almost a dozen years.

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

“Don’t accept that amount,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan advised his son Bilal. “Others brought us [money]; why shouldn’t he? Don’t worry; they’ll fall into our laps.”

The amount in question, $10 million, was allegedly offered to the Erdogan family by Turkish oil baron Sitki Ayan in exchange for tax breaks on his Turkey-Iran oil pipeline project. The recorded phone call was posted on the Internet this week, a few days after publication of other calls in which Erdogan purportedly asked his son to hide enormous sums of cash kept in various houses.

If proven authentic, these calls could foment the political revolution that the Turkish opposition has sought in vain for almost a dozen years. The YouTube clip containing the calls has been viewed more than 4 million times, and on Tuesday thousands of Turks demonstrated nationwide, bearing signs like “Erdogan, resign” and “We’ll uproot corruption.” The opposition has filed suit against Erdogan, and former senior members of his AKP party have publicly voiced their shock. And all this is happening a month before municipal elections that will offer the first indication of the scandal’s political impact.

Bilal Erdogan is allegedly the conduit through which bribes flowed from businessmen, including Iranian ones, to Turkish cabinet ministers. The fact that the scandal has touched his family has driven the prime minister crazy, and he is figuratively shooting in every direction. This week, for instance, he ordered an investigation of the Scientific and Technological Research Council, which oversaw development of the encrypted phones installed in the offices of Erdogan and his ministers. Five council members have been suspended on suspicion of leaking the codes that enabled the conversations to be taped.

Erdogan also called a meeting of the National Security Council on Wednesday to discuss the fate of the Gulen movement, headed by U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, which controls schools, media outlets, businesses and, according to Erdogan, also the police, justice and intelligence systems. Erdogan blames the Gulen movement for the corruption revelations, and Wednesday’s meeting discussed declaring it a “threat to state security.” That would effectively outlaw it and give the government almost unlimited power to arrest and try its members. Meanwhile, until a decision is made, Erdogan is urging Turks to boycott Gulenist schools – and promising free enrichment classes for children as an enticement.

All this attests to the serious trouble Erdogan is in. “He no longer trusts anyone,” an AKP member told Haaretz. “He sees only enemies around him and is certain everyone around him belongs to the Gulen movement. ... A feeling of terror reigns in government offices.”

Erdogan has also fired or transferred hundreds of policemen, prosecutors and judges, in what he terms an effort to eradicate the “parallel state” controlled by the Gulenists. The next step in his effort to eliminate his rivals was a bill signed into law by President Abdullah Gul this week that gives the justice minister great power to appoint or dismiss judges and prosecutors. Gul rejected the original version of the bill, saying its 12 articles contained at least 15 unconstitutional provisions, but approved an amended version. Now, both the opposition and Erdogan plan to appeal to the Constitutional Court – the opposition because it thinks the new law gives the government too much power, and Erdogan because he thinks it doesn’t give the government enough.

European criticism of the new law doesn’t interest him. Neither does the domestic and international opposition to another new law that gives the authorities broad powers to regulate Internet activity.

The big question is what impact all these developments will have on AKP’s showing in the local elections. The party is running candidates in every town in Turkey, but in some, like Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara, the political impact of an AKP loss would be especially great, because Erdogan has backed these candidates personally. In contrast, if AKP once again beats its rivals, “That will show this government is reasonable and that it truly serves the public as it should,” as Erdogan said in Berlin earlier this month.

A poll published in early February showed AKP winning about 10 percent fewer votes than it did the 2009 municipal elections and 15 percent fewer than in the 2011 general elections, but still outpolling the opposition. That, however, was before publication of the tapes allegedly showing Erdogan’s personal involvement in corruption.

Another important question is how the party would react to a loss. Would it still let Erdogan be its presidential candidate in this summer’s election, or would it ask him to resign? It doesn’t have any other obvious candidates to lead the party. But Gul, who will step down as president this summer, hasn’t yet said the last word.

Of course, much will depend on the outcome of the corruption probes – and especially the one into the money channel that led, or didn’t lead, straight to Erdogan’s house.

Protesters paint a truck of Turkey's ruling AK Party (AKP) during a demonstration in Ankara. February 2, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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