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Turkish corruption probe raises the stakes but not just for Erdogan

The investigation is widely seen as politically motivated and comes at a time when Turkey appears increasingly vulnerable with a war raging in Syria and the government facing fierce challenges from within.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addresses legislators from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara on November 19, 2013. Adem Altan/AFP
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addresses legislators from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara on November 19, 2013. Adem Altan/AFP

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears to be losing friends rapidly following a corruption inquiry that has ensnared government ministers and members of his family.

Launched by opponents in the judiciary and police force, the investigation has implicated Mr Erdogan’s allies, including a Saudi investor and alleged financier of Al Qaeda with ties to Mr Erdogan and his son, Bilal.

But the investigation is widely seen as politically motivated and comes at a time when Turkey appears increasingly vulnerable with a war raging in Syria and the government facing fierce challenges from within.

With the stakes so high, many in Turkey believe the country cannot afford to erode the strong leadership, which Mr Erdogan has demonstrated during his decade in power.

While the prime minister was quick to back the rebels against Bashar Al Assad, he navigated a careful path between offering a safehaven to refugees fleeing the conflict and supporting the opposition but not engaging in all-out war with Damascus.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have sought sanctuary in Turkey, and some are alarmed by the political turmoil.

Syrians are “worried about what will happen” if Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) leaves power, according to a Syrian army defector in his 30s, who is living in the border area. He was unsure how other political parties in Turkey would treat the refugees, whose presence is seen by some Turkish citizens as destabilising the country.

Another casualty, if Mr Erdogan is brought down, could be the fledgling peace process with Kurdish militants. Mr Erdogan’s confidants have overseen the construction of a framework for negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

The PKK, which sought Kurdish autonomy, fought a decades-long war against the Turkish government in which more than 40,000 people were killed.

The talks are already on shaky ground due to Turkey’s judiciary cracking down on Kurdish legislators and a lack of progress in the negotiations.

While the corruption inquiry is undoubtedly a political blow, the AKP is expected to perform relatively well in local elections scheduled for March — though its share of the vote might decrease, according to a survey of pollsters carried out by the Wall Street Journal.

Yet the corruption investigation is more damaging to Mr Erdogan as a politician than to the AKP.

Internal party rules block him from another term as prime minister and he is expected to run for the presidency in an election scheduled for this year.

While the presidency is considered a ceremonial position in Turkey, Mr Erdogan — who is no stranger to adversity, having already defeated

Turkey’s once all-powerful military — could dominate politics through force of will and popular appeal.

Among them are his former allies from the Gulen movement, a fraternity of businesses, media outlets and schools inspired by a Turkish religious leader, Fethullah Gulen.

Though unwilling to form a political party, the Gulen movement is a powerful influence on Turkey’s police and judiciary and is believed to have instigated the corruption investigation.

Mr Erdogan’s persistence as a policymaker is a concern for his opponents, who fear he might do more to limit their influence.

jvela@thenational.ae