A Corruption Investigation Arrests Turkey’s Political Calm

The sweeping anti-corruption arrests carried out this week by Turkish law enforcement authorities and the government’s stern response in sacking a wide range of police commanders mark the biggest political crisis in Turkey since 2007 and signal a further intensification of conflict and turmoil as the country looks at a series of elections in 2014-15. Those detained on December 17-18 include the sons of three government ministers, an Istanbul district mayor, senior staff at the environment and economy ministries, and several business figures. Formal charges have not been filed, but press reports allege those detained were involved in bribery, rigged state tenders, forgery, and smuggling.

This is the first serious political corruption scandal to ensnare the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party since it first won election in 2002 – in part on the promise it would bring clean government to the country. Erdoğan, who apparently was not informed of the investigation that had been going on for a year or more, called the allegations a “dirty game.” Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç complained of “a well-planned operation that included methods of psychological warfare to tarnish the government.” Another deputy prime minister, Bekir Bozdağ, bluntly said that those behind the case seek to affect the upcoming local and presidential elections.

The government moved to assert a measure of control. By December 20, over three dozen senior police officials in Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities reportedly had been dismissed. Those sacked included the Istanbul deputy chiefs of police for financial crimes and for counternarcotics and organized crime, as well as department heads in various cities for organized crime, financial crimes, anti-smuggling, terrorism, and public peace. The authorities named new prosecutors to join the team investigating the bribery and other allegations, and supervision of the case reportedly was moved from a senior deputy to Istanbul’s chief prosecutor. Opposition party leaders and others have harshly criticized the government’s response as political interference in a law enforcement matter, as has Transparency International.

Most Turks regard the investigations and the government response as a dramatic escalation of the ongoing fight between Erdoğan and supporters of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. These events follow two years or more of Gülenist criticism on a wide range of matters, including the government’s dealings with jailed Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Öcalan, Turkey’s break with Israel, and especially Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism. The most recent blow in their conflict came when Erdoğan announced plans in November to abolish privately-operated college entrance exam preparatory schools, of which Gülen backers run a significant number and from which they are believed to garner both funding and recruits. In this narrative, the corruption investigation looks like revenge by the Gülenists and their allies in the law enforcement community.

Politics may be as important as revenge. Turkey will hold nationwide municipal elections in March, a presidential election in August, and a parliamentary vote in July 2015 – or sooner should the government want to move it up. The Gülenists’ move seems aimed at that political cycle because its development will determine how fully Erdoğan can influence the AK Party once he leaves the prime ministry and what array of forces will succeed him in leading it.

The local voting in March will be the next test of the AK Party’s political standing. Like municipal contests everywhere, it will be less dominated by national concerns. In the 2009 local elections, a significant number of voters generally supportive of Erdoğan apparently cast their ballots for other parties to protest things about him and/or the AK Party that they did not like. The party already faced a tough challenge in duplicating the nearly 50 percent of votes it won in the last national election (for parliament in July 2011). That task may have just gotten harder. How AK Party candidates fare will shape decisions about the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Most Turks expect Erdoğan to stand for the presidency in August. Recent polls put public support for him in the 52 to 55 percent range, and most Turks have expected that he would win. A loss of the Gülenist vote, estimated by some at 2 to 5 percent or more, could deprive Erdoğan of a first-round victory. That would detract from the political authority he would hope to carry with him – as the country’s first-ever popularly-elected president – so as to continue to dominate the country’s politics. If Erdoğan does not run, he may become an increasingly lame duck in the period leading up to the parliamentary vote. Under an AK Party rule limiting legislators to three terms – a rule that Erdoğan helped author and has strongly supported in public – he may not stand for parliament at the next election. One way or another, he will not be the country’s next prime minister.

Change at lower levels also will affect Turkey’s governance. Of twenty-six members in the current cabinet of ministers, fifteen hit the three-term limit. A sixteenth is running for a mayoral post and will not likely return to the government. Ministers now implicated in the new corruption scandal may become political poison and ineligible for future office. So whereas the decade-plus of AK rule has been marked by continuity, as few as seven in the current cabinet could be eligible to serve in the next government. A new and untested group would have to come to the fore.

If the AK Party remains united, it will likely prevail, albeit with a new political team in key government positions. But discomfort among some in the party about perceived authoritarianism is already substantial and may grow. A former AK Party minister has joined others in complaining publicly about government interference in the corruption investigation, and one party member of parliament, a reported Gülenist, has resigned.

It seems unlikely that an alliance of Gülenists, secularists, and others will take shape soon, if ever. But the usually sure-footed Erdoğan seems uncertain about that and about his ability to shape the country’s political future. He faces real risks. For the coming ten to eighteen months, Turkey will look more turbulent and complicated than at any time since the failed 2007 military intervention to block Abdullah Gül’s election as president.

Related Experts: Ross Wilson

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