ISTANBUL // As Turkey's governing party and the opposition accuse each other of corruption, with one leading politician being denounced as a drug trafficker and a mayor reported to have been caught on tape asking for bribes, analysts say it is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, who stands to lose most from the mudslinging. Corruption has become a hot issue in Ankara after the governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of Mr Erdogan was linked to a scandal involving the illegal channelling of money from Deniz Feneri, or "Lighthouse", a Turkish charity in Germany. Shortly before the scandal erupted in mid-September, a leading AKP politician had to resign after being accused of pocketing bribes worth US$1 million (Dh3.67m) earlier in the month.
The AKP, which demoralised the opposition in last year's general elections by winning almost 47 per cent of the vote and which had seemed virtually invincible, has been embarrassed by the scandals. Turkish voters generally assume that politicians are corrupt, but the AKP has always portrayed itself as being different. Formed in 2001 as a party free of corruption - the Turkish word "ak" means "white" or "clean" - the AKP has always prided itself on being immune to bribes. But the latest scandals have made it impossible for the party to claim the moral high ground, Mehmet Ali Birand, a veteran journalist, told the NTV news channel. "In the long run, the image of the AKP of being a party of that stands up to corruption is gone," Mr Birand said.
The press has been speculating about a cabinet reshuffle as a means to regain public confidence. Musiad, a lobby group of religiously conservative businessmen considered close to Mr Erdogan's government, recommended a "cabinet revision and a consequent and concrete calendar of reforms", in a recent report that was sent to the prime minister. Mr Erdogan has not said if he is considering a reshuffle. According to a newspaper poll published last week, 47.8 per cent of Turkish voters think Mr Erdogan may be personally involved in the Lighthouse scandal. Almost two out of three of participants said they did not believe the AKP is doing everything it can to get to the bottom of the corruption scandal. That is good news for Mr Erdogan's political opponents. After years of watching the AKP win elections, the Turkish opposition senses it has finally found an issue it can corner the government with. According to Turkish press reports, AKP party workers have had to answer difficult questions about corruption in the early stages of the campaign for local elections planned for next spring. "For the first time, they are confronted with such a big wave of questions," the Hurriyet daily newspaper reported. Abdullatif Sener, a former deputy prime minister, has also made headlines with corruption charges against the AKP. The government has been acting with a mentality that said: "If the thief is my thief, then I have to defend him", said Mr Sener, who left the AKP in the summer to form his own party. It does not look like the issue would disappear quickly. In a first for Turkish politics, two high-ranking politicians of the AKP and the CHP traded accusations of corruption in a US-style debate that was broadcast live by 20 television channels last week. In the debate the CHP's Kalem Kilicdaroglu produced documents he said proved his adversary, Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, the AKP deputy chairman, was involved in shady export dealings and that a former company of Mr Firat was involved in the smuggling of heroin. Mr Firat rejected the accusations. After almost an hour of debate, in what the press had called the "duel of the century", the two men shook hands. The gentlemanly behaviour of the two contestants showed that "democracy is the winner", Milliyet, a daily newspaper, said. But Mr Birand said that although there had not been a knock-out blow against the ruling party, it was clear the AKP was on the defensive. "The CHP is the one raising accusations, the AKP is the one continually defending itself," he said. Meanwhile, a television channel close to the AKP, Kanal 7, reported a CHP politician had asked for bribes. Kanal 7 published what it said were tape recordings of Muzaffer Eryilmaz, mayor of the Ankara district of Cankaya. According to the channel, Mr Eryilmaz can be heard talking about an "inofficial sports club" that served as the destination for bribes, in a meeting with businessmen. Kanal 7 also said the tapes proved Mr Eryilmaz had channelled money to local council members. Mr Eryilmaz denied the accusations. firstname.lastname@example.org