Soccer Scandal Becomes Turkish President's Latest Headache

Fenerbahce FC president is at the heart of a legal and political storm that could affect the political future of the ruling Justice and Development Party.

The Turkish sports club Fenerbahce is a well-known brand in Israel, not just because of Israelis like Haim Revivo who has played for its soccer team. Less familiar is the club's president, Aziz Yildirim, a 60-year-old businessman active in many areas.

Yildirim expanded Fenerbahce's operations and renovated its stadium - which now has a capacity over 50,000 - preparing Istanbul to host UEFA games. He also reorganized the finances of the club, considered Turkey's wealthiest.

Fenerbahce - AP - 21122011

But Yildirim's story doesn't end there. The Fenerbahce president is at the heart of a legal and political storm that could affect the political future of the ruling Justice and Development Party and the status of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In July last year Yildirim was arrested on suspicion of having paid bribes to players on rival soccer teams; allegedly, the idea was to fix games that would ensure Fenerbahce a place at the top of the league. According to the indictment, if Yildirim is convicted he can receive what would amount to a life term.

Other elite teams in Turkey play a role in this complex and nasty affair involving about 93 suspects now on trial. The indictment's 400 pages describe the teams' conduct as if they were the mafia. That's the simple part.

A few days after Yildirim's arrest, the Turkish parliament, controlled by the Justice and Development Party, presented a bill that would decrease the prison sentences of people convicted in sports corruption cases from 12 years to three. To Turkey's soccer fans, the bill appeared aimed at saving Yildirim's skin and that of his partners, who are close to the government.

The issue goes viral

President Abdullah Gul realized, although only after receiving thousands of e-mails from fans, that the affair could harm the ruling party's reputation as a fighter against corruption. Gul exercised his authority as president and sent the bill back to parliament for rewriting.

The kudos Gul won with this move got Erdogan riled up; from his sickbed after digestive surgery, the prime minister ordered his party members in parliament not to change a word in the bill. Under Turkish law, parliament can change a bill or resubmit it to the president unchanged; then all the president can do is turn to the Constitutional Court or give up and approve the legislation. Gul decided not to wrangle with Erdogan and signed the bill.

Turkish commentators quickly pointed out that the affair reflects the fragility of the Justice and Development Party. It's enough for Erdogan to be absent from the political arena for a few days for legislative disorder to break out and unity to be damaged.

This dispute revealed the broad cracks in the Justice and Development Party, as well as the dispute among the millions of Fenerbahce fans, who three years from now will have to cast their votes in the general election. This will be a critical election, since under a proposal passed in a referendum, the president will be chosen by the people, not parliament. This will enable Erdogan, who under party regulations will not be able to run for a third term as prime minister, to run for president.

The assessment is that Turkey will adopt the Russian model in which the prime minister and president switch roles. But the ambitious Erdogan will not want to content himself with a ceremonial presidential role lacking authority; he will try to expand the president's powers before the elections to gain status more akin to the president of the United States. Then Gul will have to accept the role of a prime minister with clipped wings.

But as someone who has already been prime minister and foreign minister and is considered more accepted by Western leaders than Erdogan, Gul doesn't intend to passively accept his fate. The real struggle between Erdogan and Gul has yet to begin, but the soccer corruption scandal is drawing the general outline of the battle between the two men perceived as responsible for the Justice and Development Party's victory in the next elections.

The French and the Armenians

Meanwhile, Erdogan is recovering from surgery but he is by no means cut off from Turkey's political and international battles. The most recent challenge doesn't have to do with the American withdrawal from Iraq or the situation in Syria, but rather a bill slated for discussion tomorrow in the French parliament. Under the bill, denial that the 1915 massacre of the Armenians was genocide will be considered a crime punishable by a 45,000 euro fine and a year in prison.

Erdogan quickly wrote a letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, saying the bill "is a bill hostile to Turkey, the Turkish people and the Turkish diaspora in France."

Several days later Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made it clear to French businessmen in Turkey that his country will not hesitate to harm their dealings if the bill is passed. Though France and Turkey agree that President Bashar Assad's rule must end in Syria, it turns out that there are more important things than the murder of Syrians.