Turkish scandal moves closer to premier

A corruption investigation could lead all the way to the nation’s leader.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEDecember 26, 2013 

ISTANBUL — Three top ministers whose sons have been implicated abruptly resigned Wednesday — and one of them, on his way out the door, said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should step down as well.

The triple resignation, coming only hours after the ministers welcomed Erdogan at the airport as he returned from Pakistan late Tuesday, was enough in itself to inspire new talk of a deepening crisis, which Erdogan has repeatedly denounced as a foreign plot.

But the seemingly spiteful utterance from one of the departing ministers was considered stunning, coming from a political party known for silencing dissent. That instantly raised the significance of the entire inquiry and left members of the Turkish public wondering if they are witnessing the collapse of their Islamist-rooted government of the past decade.

“Now it seems the situation has changed completely,” said Kerem Oktem, a Turkey expert and research fellow at the European Studies Center at the University of Oxford. “It seems the ring around Erdogan has gotten tighter.”

Later, as a dramatic day came to a close, Erdogan emerged from a late-night meeting with President Abdullah Gul at the presidential palace in Ankara, the Turkish capital, and announced that seven other ministers would leave his Cabinet, some of whom are departing as part of a long planned shuffle so they can run for mayors in upcoming elections. One of the late-night resignations included the European Union minister, who has been implicated in the corruption investigation.

The investigation became public a week ago with dawn police raids on the offices of businessmen and others close to the prime minister. But Wednesday was the first time that someone who had been in Erdogan’s hierarchy — a confidant, no less — left the strong implication of the prime minister’s entanglements in some of the real estate deals at the heart of the case.

The crisis strikes a sharp contrast to the image Turkey has projected as an exemplar of a prosperous, Muslim-majority country based on democratic principles. A NATO member, Turkey has been embraced by the United States and Europe as a force for stability in the tumultuous Middle East, and the country has sought to play an important role in shaping the outcome of crises in Syria, Egypt and Iran’s nuclear program. With Erdogan now preoccupied with political survival, Turkey’s role in the region and its relationship with the West are in question.

The corruption inquiry has targeted the ministers’ sons, a major construction tycoon with links to Erdogan and municipal workers, and centers in part on allegations that officials received bribes in exchange for ignoring zoning rules and approving contentious development projects. No one has been convicted, but the issue has struck a nerve among the Turkish public, especially Istanbul residents, who have become increasingly resentful over the dizzying pace of development and riches amassed by a new, pious economic elite, with a strong hand in the construction industry, that rose to power alongside Erdogan and his associates.

Analysts questioned whether Erdogan’s strategy of containing the damage by blaming foreign powers, appealing to the religious sentiments of supporters and evoking the ghosts of Turkey’s past by likening the crisis to the war for independence it fought after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, is enough to weather the crisis.

The Wednesday developments came amid rumors in the local media that more damaging allegations from the investigation were forthcoming and link directly to Erdogan and his family.

“We can see the prime minister is trying to take precautions against something that could be bigger,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the head of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a research organization. Unluhisarcikli said that as the investigation inches closer to Erdogan personally, he will “have more difficulty containing the damage.”

The public has been riveted by a flow of sordid details of the investigations leaked to the news media — with photographs of piles of cash in the bedroom of a minister’s son and reports that the chief executive of a state-owned bank had $4.5 million in cash packed in shoeboxes.

Another major worry for Erdogan now is that anger with his administration will spread to the streets, as it did last summer with the violent suppression of demonstrators trying to protect a beloved Istanbul park from development. On Wednesday night, sporadic protests erupted in some neighborhoods of Istanbul and other cities, with people calling on the government to resign and shouting: “Everywhere bribery! Everywhere corruption!”

On Wednesday morning, Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Interior Minister Muammer Guler, whose sons are among 24 people arrested in the corruption investigation, stepped down. A few hours later the environment and urban planning minister, Erdogan Bayraktar, closest among the three to Erdogan, said in a live television interview that he had resigned under pressure. He also said Erdogan was personally involved in unspecified property deals that are a focus of the investigation. “The prime minister has the right to work with the ministers he prefers,” Bayraktar said. “But I can’t accept this pressure on me to resign. The prime minister too has to resign.”

Soli Ozel, a columnist and professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said, “this is extraordinarily dramatic. Bayraktar was someone who was very close to the prime minister. This is someone you’d expect to fall on his sword without question.”

The resignations came after a dramatic week in which Erdogan’s government sought to purge the police forces of those it believes are behind the investigation, which has been linked to Fethullah Gulen, a popular Muslim spiritual leader in exile in Pennsylvania who has millions of followers in Turkey, including some who hold high positions within the police and judiciary. Erdogan and others have called them a “criminal gang” and a “state-within-a-state.”

Turkey has faced many upheavals, with coups and crass power struggles that sometimes turned violent, but the current crisis is something new: a clash between two Islamist rivals that had once been united in reforming the political system by pushing the military from politics.

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