x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 February 2018

Turkish voters have few options despite Erdogan scandal

Turks may or may not take Mr Erdogan’s party to task when they go to the polls, but they will expect, at the very least, to end up with a government, a judiciary and a police force that they can trust

It has all the ingredients of a great drama: a corruption scandal, a beleaguered, defiant strongman pitted against a religious movement, and a barrage of tapes, videos and photographs incriminating some of the biggest heavyweights in government, media and business. Doubtless, Turks have little reason to be bored by their country’s politics. But they have every reason to be worried about its future.

Beset by a series of bribery investigations that prompted the resignations of four of his ministers in late December, Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spent the past two-and-a-half months on the warpath. Ask his allies, and you will hear that the prime minister is staging a counteroffensive against “a judicial coup” led by an influential Islamic sect, the Gulen movement, and endorsed by foreign powers, domestic opponents and a bevy of obscure villains, including the “interest rate lobby”, “chaos lobby” and “robot lobby”, to name just a few. Ask his opponents, and you will hear that he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are staging a mass cover-up.

This much is clear: the investigations have been effectively neutered. The prosecutors involved, as well as thousands of police officers, have been replaced or demoted. As of the end of February, all of the suspects – including the sons of two government ministers and an Azeri businessman with close ties to Mr Erdogan’s inner circle – were out of jail.

The bribery scandal and the war of attrition between the AKP and the Gulenists are far from over, however. Having wasted away in the courts, they have simply migrated to a new battleground: the internet.

In recent weeks, a wave of wiretapped phone conversations and documents related to the bribery probes, as well as other evidence of wrongdoing, has washed over the Turkish web. Several recordings posted on social media purport to show government ministers, together with Mr Erdogan’s son, pressuring a group of businessmen to buy Sabah, a newspaper, and ATV, a television station. An audio file, recorded at the height of last summer’s anti-government protests, features Mr Erdogan telling a kowtowing media executive to remove a ticker from a live broadcast. In another phone conversation, the prime minister is heard scolding an editor for giving too much coverage to a politician from the main opposition party. 

A web-based backlash against the Gulenists, whose sympathisers in the police and judiciary are said to have orchestrated the leaks, has proceeded in parallel. In mid-January, recordings featuring Fethullah Gulen, the movement’s septuagenarian guru, appeared online. Speaking over the phone, the Pennsylvania-based imam is heard welcoming news that a media mogul would steer away from publishing allegations against him, weighing on which Turkish company should be awarded the contract for a refinery deal in Uganda, and discussing reports of a run on Bank Asya, a Turkish bank operated by his followers. 

Nothing, however, has made as big a splash as a recording uploaded to YouTube late last month that appears to reveal Mr Erdogan and his son planning to remove millions of dollars of cash from their homes on the day that the corruption probe first boiled to the surface.

The country’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has vouched for the tape’s authenticity. Within a day of its being posted, the CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, exhorted Mr Erdogan to “resign or flee in a helicopter”. The prime minister has shrugged off the allegations, calling the recording an “immoral montage”. 

All this does not bode well for Turkey. With one recording after another making its way onto the internet, with the opposition pouncing on every new leak to go after the government, with Mr Erdogan resorting to purges of the bureaucracy and outrageous conspiracy theories to save his political skin, and with the tapes themselves beginning to take centre stage in the national debate, the country’s politics appears to be on the brink of chaos.

Who will come out on top, and how, is impossible to predict. Judging by a newly adopted law that allows the government to block web content in a matter of hours, as well as a bill intended to give the national intelligence agency additional surveillance powers, Mr Erdogan may try to contain the corruption crisis by tightening the screw even further. This will surely earn him further rebukes from his western partners, including the European Union, which already appears exasperated with Turkey’s backsliding. Whether it will prove effective is not nearly as certain. 

Just as uncertain is when the next leaks might arrive, what allegations they will contain and how big a political punch they will pack.

It also remains to be seen whether and how the opposition will be able to capitalise on Mr Erdogan’s troubles. Staking its reputation on a series of mostly unsubstantiated leaks, the CHP is playing with fire. Even if it avoids getting burnt, it will have to deliver more than just finger pointing for Turkish voters to entrust it with running the country. Turks will head to the polls three times in the next 15 months, starting with local elections on March 30. They may or may not take Mr Erdogan’s party to task – with things moving so quickly, that is also difficult to predict – but they will expect, at the very least, to end up with a government, a judiciary and a police force that they can trust.

Piotr Zalewski is a freelance writer living in Istanbul