In his 11 years in office, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has changed the face of Turkey, turning its economy into one of Europe’s strongest while securing a big role on the regional stage.
Now, however, he’s become enmeshed in a corruption and bribery scandal that’s shocked the country and embarrassed the government. His harsh reaction has raised profound questions about the future of justice in this land of 78 million people and is costing him support within his core constituency.
Some supporters think that after winning three elections, “Usta” – or “the boss” – is on the way out.
“He’s already gone,” Ibrahim Kurtulmusoglu, a 48-year-old antiques dealer who’s been a member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party since its inception, said in an interview not far from the prime minister’s boyhood home, “because the smell is everywhere.”
Purported wiretaps leaked to Turkish reporters suggest that Erdogan, his 19-year-old son, Bilal, and his top aides had facilitated the rezoning of valuable tracts to the benefit of contractors profiting from the country’s construction and economic boom. Videos show “bagmen” delivering purported cash bribes to a private foundation connected with Erdogan’s family. Police said they found shoeboxes full of money – millions of dollars – at the homes of a Cabinet minister’s son and the manager of a state bank.
Erdogan sought to limit the damage by firing four Cabinet ministers, but one of them, Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar, said on the way out the door that his boss should exit with him. The prime minister declared that there would be no compromise in the struggle against corruption, yet his angry response – he reassigned some 2,500 police officers around the country – appeared aimed more at quashing the probe and blocking any prosecution.
The prime target of Erdogan’s wrath is his onetime ally, Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamist writer and scholar who lives in self-exile in rural Pennsylvania and heads a worldwide movement, with schools in Turkey, the U.S. and 158 other countries. According to Erdogan, followers of Gulen had turned Turkey’s judiciary and police into a “state within a state.” That judiciary launched an “assassination attempt dressed up as a corruption investigation.” On Monday, Erdogan compared the Gulenists to the medieval group known as Assassins, using the Turkish word, Hashashins, implying that they also used hashish. The Journalists and Writers Foundation, as the Gulenist movement has named its office here, denounced Erdogan’s accusations as slander.
Many Turks in the neighborhood where the prime minister grew up are openly skeptical that he’s the victim of a conspiracy.
There’s some truth to the corruption charges, said Byram Karaoglu, 78, a retired schoolteacher who runs a small grocery just opposite the apartment building where Erdogan’s family lives in Kasimpasa, a working-class neighborhood close to the center of Istanbul. “It’s been this way for a long time in Turkey.”
“A state within a state? Such a thing is impossible in Turkey,” said Yahya, 55, a retiree who was walking down Piyale Mumhanesi Sokak street one Saturday. Like many of those who commented, Yahya didn’t want to be fully identified, for fear of government retaliation.
Durdane, 53, who also asked to be identified only by her first name, concurred. “There was no crime on the part of the (Gulenist) movement.”
Kenan, 31, was willing to concede that Turkey might house a “state within a state.” But he was still bitter about the brutal police crackdown Erdogan ordered last summer against youthful protesters who took to the streets around the country to protest the prime minister’s decision to demolish a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square to build a shopping center.
Kenan, like many others interviewed, said he was angry that Bilal Erdogan had ignored a subpoena to appear for questioning by a prosecutor over allegations that he’d received bribe money to build hostels and dormitories for students. “I don’t think you have a choice when you get a prosecutor’s summons,” he said.
No one expects the prime minister to go quietly, and most expect him to stay at the top of Turkish politics. Already, his dramatic decision to overhaul the judiciary has turned the scandal into a test of Turkish democracy. In an interview, a senior Erdogan aide put the struggle in apocalyptic imagery.
“It is the last and biggest struggle,” said the aide, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, saying he wasn’t authorized to talk under his own name. “This is the last chance to maintain a stable, calibrated democracy. It is a crisis for democracy, and the outcome will define the future of Turkey and the region.”
Waxing hyperbolic, he quipped that this would be the “mother of all wars,” paraphrasing Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi leader, on the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Coloring the controversy is Turkey’s history of a judiciary that delivers phony charges that are upheld by courts completely lacking in due process.
Gareth Jenkins, a respected commentator who’s lived in Turkey for 24 years, said Turkish prosecutors had launched major cases based on fabricated evidence before.
The timing of the revelations – coming in two waves, on Dec.17 and Dec. 25, just three months before nationwide local elections – “makes very clear that it was politically motivated,” he told McClatchy. Prosecutors took “a lot of different allegations” for events that occurred at different times and “packaged them together.”
“They were sitting on this stuff, waiting for the timing,” he said. As for the content of the allegations, “the problem is that the Gulenists have fabricated evidence in the past. They have fed stuff to the media that has never appeared in the indictments.” And in some major trials, particularly the recently completed trials of top military officers, “there are many innocent people in prison.”
Until there was concrete proof brought before a court, the allegations should be viewed as allegations, Jenkins said.
Erdogan’s senior aide said the power struggle between the prime minister and Gulen had been under way for more than two years but was hidden between the lines of Erdogan’s public speeches about justice and accountability, vague words that his fellow party members decoded as criticizing the Gulenist-influenced judiciary. “He couldn’t say it publicly,” the aide said.
But as Erdogan began to criticize judicial practices, news media sympathetic to the Gulen movement – which owns Zaman, Turkey’s biggest-circulation paper – began running columns that attacked the prime minister, the aide said. Erdogan struck back last autumn by threatening to take over Gulen’s network of college exam preparatory schools throughout Turkey, enflaming the quarrel. Now it’s no holds barred.
Gulen, who rarely takes a public stance on matters of state, issued a curse against “those who go after those catching the thief without seeing the thief.” Erdogan dismissed it as rhetoric. “Curses between Muslims are such a terrible thing that they come around like a boomerang and hit those who pronounce them,” he said.
Whatever the accuracy of Erdogan’s claims of a state within a state conspiracy, many here fear that the prime minister is destroying the democratic principle of separation of powers by trying to bring the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, an independent administrative body that assigns judges to cases, under the control of his Justice Ministry. Erdogan has proposed replacing the council’s 27 members and eliminating most of the board’s independent powers.
The council has blasted the proposal as unconstitutional, and outside observers have expressed worry that the battle will do lasting harm to Turkey’s claims of democracy.
The country’s judicial apparatus “is a very shaky system, open to the arbitrary use of terrorism laws, but intervening now, as the government is doing, is doubly damaging” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, a senior rights researcher in Turkey for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “It suggests that the powerful are untouchable. The damage to the justice system going on at the moment is huge.”
Erdogan has shown himself before to be brittle about personal criticism. Ertugrul Gunay, who was Erdogan’s minister of culture and tourism, quit the party last month rather than face disciplinary proceedings for having sent out a tweet critical of the prime minister.
“The prime minister does not want a just judiciary,” he told McClatchy in a written statement. “He wants a system that is tied to him.”
The first test of what damage Erdogan’s popularity has suffered will come in March, when voters cast ballots in local elections, and the prime minister has launched a campaign to show he’s in control. New posters that have just gone up all over Istanbul show a stern Erdogan over the caption “Strong and Determined.”
Gunay predicts the effort won’t work. “There is huge disappointment,” he said, noting that recent polls have shown a 10 percentage-point drop in approval for Erdogan’s party. “As a politician who lives among the people, I can see that this fall will continue.”
Zeynep Ozbek, 29, a teacher, acknowledged enormous disappointment in Erdogan, fueled by a fear that she’s no longer free to demonstrate against conditions she encounters every day – not just the corruption scandal but also the high prices of beans, chickpeas and electricity. She recalled a recent discussion among her friends of a protest march that would feature shoeboxes filled with money.
“I said, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” she recounted. “When you have shoeboxes full of money, who knows what will happen? In the last minute it could blow up.”
She was thinking of last summer. “After the events in Taksim, you can’t go out. You can’t shout. You can’t march,” she told McClatchy.
She, her 9-year-old daughter and her 5-year-old son were strolling in central Istanbul just a week ago and ran into a Kurdish protest demonstration, when the police arrived. They were all tear-gassed.
It was too much for her. “Sometimes I want to take my children and leave here,” she said.