Corruption Scandal Shock Waves Spread in Turkey

December 31, 2013 Updated: December 31, 2013

ISTANBUL—The Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is struggling through the worst scandal in its 11-year reign. Erdogan and his Cabinet members have suffered a great blow to their reputations after recent allegations of bribery. Erdogan has said he is battling “dark forces.”

He blames U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen for leading a conspiracy against his government. The Writers’ and Journalists’ Association, which often speaks for Gulen, said Monday that the movement has no “enmity” toward Gulen and no links to the prosecutors’ probe.

The scandal has not only increased the political and economic risks for the country, but has also caused mistrust between the United States and Turkey. Despite Erdogan’s initiative to reshuffle the Cabinet, the survival of his government is uncertain.

The scandal began on Dec. 17, when police arrested several high-profile figures on fraud and bribery charges, including businessmen and a banker with close ties to the government and the sons of three Cabinet ministers.

The developments have been interpreted locally and internationally as an escalation of the power struggle between Erdogan and Gulen, Turkey’s most influential cleric. Gulen owns private schools in over 140 countries and runs media assets, charities, and other businesses in Turkey.

When the ruling AK Party came into power in 2002, Gulen’s followers were its closest allies. The conflict between the AK Party and Gulen started a few years ago due to differing views on foreign policy.

The tension peaked recently with a disagreement on the closure of university-preparation schools and other education centers, which are main sources of income for Gulen and his followers. These schools also foster large numbers of students who go on to work for government organizations.

Although the exact number of Gulen’s followers is not known, they are said to have a strong foothold in government institutions and to have infiltrated the judiciary, the police, the military, and other state organizations in Turkey. Gulen is thus able to influence public policy.

Journalist Rusen Cakir of the Daily Vatan wrote in his column that the “employment of Gulenists within the state is not a new phenomenon.” He said, “To a large extent, it was known and supported by the government.”

After the arrests, Erdogan responded quickly, dismissing 150 police officers, including the police chief in Istanbul. Although Erdogan has never directly mentioned Gulen’s followers in his statements, he has said he is getting rid of a “state within state.”

Erdogan replaced 10 ministers in his government, hoping to relieve some public criticisms weighing down on his party.

On Wednesday, Environment and Urbanization Minister Erdogan Bayraktar spoke with the private local broadcaster NTV instead of the state-run Anadolu Agency after resigning of his own accord, saying: “I resign from both cabinet and parliament membership. I believe Prime Minister should also resign.”

It seems Erdogan’s party is publicly divided.

The Turkish economy, which is highly dependent on short-term income to put toward the deficit, might face difficulties next year. The Turkish lira hit an all-time low against the dollar and the Istanbul stock exchange has fallen 12 percent since the scandal first started.

Journalist Mehmet Yilmaz of the Hurriyet Daily wrote in his column: “Apparently the reason why all this has surfaced is external forces and their internal allies that want to prevent Turkey’s progress. … We just don’t know when and how Turkey has become so powerful to the point of disturbing world powers.”

Although Erdogan’s government was re-elected in 2011 with a nearly 50 percent majority, its 11-year reign might end on a sour note.

Last summer, protesters took to the streets in the tens of thousands, decrying what they called an authoritarian government. The police intervention in the famed Gezi Park protest sparked nationwide outrage. It was unclear, however, how much the electoral popularity of the government had been shaken.

Some political analysts expect a decline in votes for the AK Party this round. In addition, clashes between the AK Party government and the Gulen community have highlighted weaknesses in how state institutions are run. The scandal may cause trust in the government to decline.

The CEO of state-owned Halkbank was among those arrested. He is accused of shady dealings with Iran for oil. Turkish media outlets reported that American Ambassador Francis Ricciardone said the United States warned Turkey about Halkbank. Ricciardone allegedly said, “Now you will watch the collapse of an empire,” though the ambassador denies making these statements.

Erdogan has publicly criticized Ricciardone, threatening to expel him from the country.

Follow Emel on Twitter: @mlakan