Uncertainty grips the country as another scandal engulfs Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government
Mar 1st 2014 | ANKARA | From the print edition
The bouquet of wilting lilies in the foyer of the Justice and Development (AK) party headquarters in Ankara is a fitting emblem for Turkey’s ruling party. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is fighting for his political life after a series of secretly taped conversations was posted on YouTube, a video-sharing website, on February 24th. In them he allegedly discusses with his younger son, Bilal, how to get rid of millions of euros of cash stashed in his home.
The exchanges are said to have taken place on December 17th. That was the day when police raided the homes of sons of several members of Mr Erdogan’s cabinet and of some business allies as part of a corruption probe now labelled the biggest in recent history. Two of the ministers’ sons and a business associate are in jail awaiting trial. Four cabinet ministers implicated in the scandal have been forced to resign.
Can they succeed? It is a measure of the uncertainty that has gripped the country that even habitually cautious Western diplomats say “everything is possible”. Mr Erdogan’s claims that the corruption probe is a foreign plot with the Pennsylvania-based Mr Gulen as its executioner may have satisfied his pious core supporters. But the bombshell tapes have planted doubt in many people’s minds. And they are only the latest in a series of incriminating recordings of Mr Erdogan and his family members to be posted online.Mr Erdogan promptly denounced the recordings as a “shameless and treacherous montage” and hinted that they were the work of a powerful Sunni Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whose followers in the police and the judiciary are thought to be behind the investigations. Their aim is to unseat Mr Erdogan, some say, perhaps before municipal elections on March 30th.
At least 2m Turks have clicked on the recordings. One woman on an Istanbul commuter ferry played one loudly to other passengers. Thousands have taken to the streets calling on the government to resign. Further demonstrations are expected amid worries of a return to the violence seen during the Gezi park protests last summer.
The country’s disgruntled Kurds are threatening to demonstrate, too. Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the Kurdish BDP party, has even suggested that a year-long ceasefire between the government and PKK rebels might come unstuck. “Erdogan’s back is against the wall, he could do anything to remain out of jail,” says Ertugrul Gunay, a former culture minister who fell foul of the prime minister.
So far, Mr Erdogan’s response has been to reshuffle thousands of police officers and prosecutors thought to be Gulen operatives. More controversially, he has passed new laws to tighten censorship of the internet, give the government greater control over judges and prosecutors and expand the already considerable powers of MIT, the national spy agency.
Mr Erdogan says the measures are needed in order to dismantle Mr Gulen’s “parallel state”. But to many they are a crude attempt to cement his own grip, stop further incriminating recordings from popping up and shield himself and his family from prosecution. Few believe that the revelations will stop here. Many are bracing for video recordings of the Erdogans spiriting out their alleged millions. As Abdullah Gul, the president, recently conceded, no restrictions can completely stanch the flow of dirt.
Mr Gul has drawn his share of criticism for signing the controversial internet and judiciary laws, albeit with objections, some of which were taken into account through revisions. He was assumed to have wanted to swap jobs with Mr Erdogan when his term expires in August. But Mr Erdogan’s presidential dreams seem unattainable unless AK wins heavily in March. Numan Kurtulmus, an AK deputy chairman, declares, “We shall win 55 of a total of 81 cities.” It is impossible to predict: one leaked recording has an Erdogan flunky talking to a newspaper editor about doctoring an opinion poll.
Still, the conventional wisdom is that, unless voters feel the economic pinch, few will be bothered by their rulers’ sleaze. Should this prove wrong (and several people now expect AK to lose Ankara), Mr Erdogan’s fellow AK party members may at last decide it is time to replace him.
Mr Gul is still touted as one possible successor. Another is Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister, who has a spotless reputation. But the bigger question is where to park Mr Erdogan. The leader of the main opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, this week told the prime minister what he should do: “Get on a helicopter and leave the country,” he said.