Alleged corruption scandal stirs Turkish political scene

Alleged corruption scandal stirs Turkish political scene

The corruption probe that implicated high level bureaucrats, sons of three ministers and businessmen known to be close to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) sent shock waves through the Turkish political spectrum. As local elections loom in the horizon, the alleged corruption and bribery charges may change the political scene of the country profoundly.

In December, a total of 89 people including high-profile figures such as the sons of the Minister of Economy, of Interior Affairs, and of Environment and Urban Planning; the executive director of the state-owned bank Halkbank; the mayor of the Fatih District in Istanbul; a construction tycoon known to be close to the government; and an Iranian-Azeri businessman living in Turkey were taken into custody linked to a bribery and corruption investigation.

One of the corruption allegations is particularly interesting for international audiences because it involves elaborate money transfers to Iran via Halkbank. The payments for crude oil and gas made to Iran by Turkey were kept in accounts opened at Halkbank as the sanctions introduced in March 2012 did not allow money transactions to and from Iran. Then, the money was used to buy gold through Turkish companies and the gold was transferred to Iran.

This gold-for-oil trade was criticized by the United States, and it was thought to have stopped with tighter sanctions introduced in February 2013. Yet, one of the allegations brought against the suspects suggests that this trade continued through a complex system that involved front companies in China. Prime Minister Erdogan dismissed the accusations by claiming that the Halkbank is being targeted because it scares Turkey’s enemies.

As the names of the accused began to hit the headlines, the initial surprise turned into anticipation for the next steps of the AKP government. The government responded to the public outcry by immediately transferring 11 chiefs of police to different posts for administrative necessities and for abusing their official competences by not informing their superiors about the investigation. Soon after, the Police Chief of Istanbul, Huseyin Capkin, was dismissed. Erdogan immediately hinted at a wide-scale probe into the police force by stating that such changes may spread to other cities. Throughout the week, dismissals of police chiefs and officers continued in Turkey’s major cities.

In addition, the regulation for the police force was amended overnight to make sure that police officers would have to tell their direct superiors about investigations, limiting the prosecutor’s authority during an investigation. Two additional prosecutors were assigned to the investigation composed of three cases, but the chief prosecutor Zekeriya Oz – the controversial former prosecutor of Ergenekon trials – continues to coordinate the investigation. These moves by the AKP government seem to be an attempt to cover up what may turn out to be the largest corruption scandal that surfaced in Turkey in recent history.

Apart from unsettling the political scene, the investigation caused tribulations for Turkish currency. The Turkish lira rapidly lost value and plummeted to a record low of TL 2.097 to the dollar on 20 December. As the allegations surfaced on 17 December, the Istanbul stock index fell 3%.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Erdogan called the investigation “a dirty operation” against his government and accused an illegal organization within the state apparatus with links abroad for orchestrating the investigations. By pointing at foreign influences and their extensions within, Erdogan hints that the Gulen movement is behind the corruption probe without actually saying the name.

Although the Gulen movement denied its involvement in the investigation, few have any doubts that the investigation is anything other than a new scene of the struggle between the Gulen movement and the AKP government. The tension between two long-standing allies first became public when a prosecutor wanted to question the head of the Turkish Intelligence Service, Hakan Fidan, in February 2012. When an arrest warrant was issued for Fidan, Prime Minister Erdogan backed him up, and the AKP government passed a law stating that the Prime Minister’s permission is required for questioning intelligence officers.

The last rift was caused by the AKP’s move to close prep schools for university entrance exams. The Gulen movement is known to have an influence over a number of these private institutions. Their closure will cut off an important source of revenue for the movement and undermine an important means of influence within Turkish society.

Erdogan addresses the corruption allegations as a well-planed plot against the AKP government. In his declaration on 21 December, he warned that the judiciary is not blameless either and that “they too know things”. With local elections scheduled for March 2014 and the presidential election later in the year, the internal strife within Turkey’s ruling elite is likely to create more turbulence in the political scene.

No matter who influenced the initiation of the investigation, these alleged corruption and bribery charges may change the voting preferences of the Turkish electorate that favored AKP for over a decade. With the corruption probe, Prime Minister Erdogan’s and AKP’s grip on political power and on the state apparatus is being contested, and its implications may profoundly alter the Turkish political scene.

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