"The evaporation of the Turkish state as we know it"

A series of alleged telephone recordings between the Turkish prime minister and members of his family has escalated an ongoing political crisis to unprecedented levels, with many now fearing for the state of the country's democracy. By Dorian Jones in Istanbul

By Dorian Jones

Ahead of a key football game this week, a Turkish football fan tweeted that he hoped there would be no new corruption allegations for the duration of the game because he wanted to be able to watch the match in peace. He is not alone; much of the country is now captivated by the seemingly unrelenting flow of alleged recordings of telephone conversations being made available on the Internet that seem to indicate high-level government corruption.

"I thought the prime minister had this under control, but these latest reverberations – if proven correct – are on a truly immense scale," declares Soli Ozel, professor of International Relations and Political Science at Istanbul Kadir Has University and columnist for the newspaper "Haber Turk".

The recordings purportedly started with a conversation between the prime minster and his son Bilal in which they discuss the disposal of vast sums of money. The conversation has given birth to a new word in Turkish: "zeroed". It comes from the fact that the prime minister repeatedly demands to know whether the money has been "zeroed". The latest leak involves the prime minister's son-in-law, a prominent businessmen, and his wife discussing which shredding machine to buy; they settle on the most expensive.

Fethullah Gulen (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Some observers in Turkey feel that the recent corruption inquiry is part of a growing political feud between Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, the founder of the Gulen movement and a former ally of the PM. Gulen – who is widely believed to have supporters within the Turkish police and judiciary – has accused the AKP of being "anti-democratic" in its response to the corruption investigation. For its part, Turkey's parliament has passed a bill to shut down private preparatory schools, many of which are run by Fethullah Gulen's Hizmet ("Service") movement

Prime Minister Erdogan has repeatedly claimed that the recordings have been maliciously edited or are fakes. At a party rally on Thursday, he accused his own police force of being behind the editing of the recordings, asking "Hey, police, which country are you working for?" The recordings are the latest escalation in an increasingly acrimonious battle between the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) and followers of the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the US.

"This was a de facto coalition, and this coalition broke down because of disagreements about the division of power … who will get the biggest share in the victory spoils", observes political columnist Kadri Gursel of the newspaper "Milliyet" and the website "AL Monitor". Going back to the 1980s, followers of Gulen, known as the Cemaat, have been widely suspected of having a strong presence in both the police and the judiciary. The Cemaat are widely credited with playing a key role in bringing down the politically meddlesome secular military in a series of coup conspiracy trials that resulted in hundreds of convictions.

Last December, prosecutors launched a series of alleged government corruption probes, implicating scores of people, including three ministers' sons and the head of a state bank. The prime minister described the probes as an attempted coup. Hundreds of prosecutors and police linked to the probes have subsequently been reassigned by the government, stopping them in their tracks.

A struggle for power in Turkey

"It's not a struggle about corruption; it's a struggle for power in Turkey," argues Osman Can, a former judge and member of the AKP's central committee. "The High Council of Judges and Prosecutors are under the control of the Gulenists. Everyone knows that; we know the people by name. So that's why it is ultimately a struggle about democracy."

Workers take part in anti-government protests in Ankara on 28 February 2014 (photo:  picture alliance/AP Photo)
Angry workers (pictured here) at an anti-government protest in Ankara denounce the corruption scandal that has shaken Erdogan's government. Turkey's state-run news agency says that five suspects jailed in a vast corruption investigation, including two former ministers' sons and a businessman suspected of bribery and illicit money transfers to Iran, have been released on parole pending trial

The High Council runs the country's judiciary, appointing judges and prosecutors, promoting people and enforcing discipline. In a controversial move, the government recently ended its independence, putting it under tighter control by the justice minister. The controversial legislation drew howls of protest from human rights groups, academics and the European Union.

"It is important for a democratic state to have an independent judiciary, and we don't have that now; it's getting worse and worse," warned Riza Turmen, a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights and a member of parliament for the opposition Republican People's Party. The legislation follows the passing of an equally contentious law that gives the government greater control over the Internet, including the power to close websites without a court order.

The government is now considering new legislation to extend the powers of Turkey's Intelligence Agency, the MIT. Under the proposed law, only the prime minister would be able to sanction any prosecution or investigation into its activities. Anyone who reports on its activities would face a nine-year prison sentence. "The lack of accountability is one the huge problems with this legislation," warns law professor Istar Gozaydin of Istanbul's Dogus University, "the MIT somehow becomes omnipotent."

The MIT is seen as the one security institution that the prime minister trusts. It has been at the forefront of investigations into Gulen followers in the police and the judiciary in particular. Speculation is rife that mass arrests of Gulen followers are now in the offing. In fact, there is a growing feeling of a legal civil war in the country: "We are basically seeing the disintegration, the unravelling, the evaporation of the Turkish state as we know it," observes Ozel. "Its institutions have no institutional integrity left. Its rules and laws are not really being observed. And it's going to be pretty tense from now until the end of the local elections in March."

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (photo: A. Kisbenede/AFP/Getty Images)
President under fire: Turkish President Abdullah Gul has come under fire for signing two new laws that have caused outrage in Turkey and abroad: the first gave the government more control over the appointment of judges to the judiciary and the second is an Internet law that opponents say will severely restrict freedom of speech. The president has been punished accordingly by the online community with 96,000 followers "unfollowing" the president on twitter following the campaign #UnfollowAbdullahGul

Hugely significant local elections

"There is an election on 30 March, and the real test is this: if the people choose us as the top party, that means this government is honest," the prime minister declared during a visit to Germany in January. Despite the political magnitude of the elections, there have been surprisingly few opinion polls. One media insider who wanted to remain anonymous said, "everyone is frightened of upsetting the government by publishing unfavourable polls."

However, it remains unclear what impact the corruption allegations – and in particular the leaked telephone recordings – will have on AKP voters, "In theory, they are extremely damaging, but I am not sure people are hearing about it," speculates columnist Asli Aydintasbas, "On the airwaves, you rarely hear proper allegations; sometimes you hear the denial but not the actual story. The main opposition party leader actually played the tapes in parliament, but most networks cut his speech right at that moment."

The economy is probably the most important trump card Erdogan has to play. During his decade-long rule, he has presided over unprecedented economic growth and been rewarded with unprecedented electoral success. But the economy is already weakening and the political scandal is starting to hurt economically. "Already, business and consumer confidence indexes for January revealed a very sharp decline in numbers," points out Atilla Yesilada, consultant at Global Source Partners. "There is a sort of confidence crisis largely caused by the fight in Ankara. Now, on top of that, we have a massive interest rate shock. The inescapable conclusion is that Turkey will suffer a relatively deep recession."

But Erdogan is peerless when it comes to campaigning, and for months he has already been relentlessly addressing rallies of thousands of adoring supporters across the country. Those efforts are likely to be stepped up as the crucial election date looms. The political stakes have never been higher: "The local elections are as important as any election I have witnessed since my birth" says Soli Ozel.

Dorian Jones

© Qantara.de 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de