Turkey’s House of Cards Moment: Arrests and Scandal Signal a Crisis for Erdogan

An astonishing series of arrests this week hint at a power struggle between Turkey's Prime Minister and the Gulenists, an influential Islamist movement that was once his ally — but which now could provoke a political meltdown in Ankara

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Burhan Ozbilici / AP

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, on Dec. 18, 2013.

In May 2011, a month before parliamentary elections that were to sweep him to power for the third time since 2002, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan triumphantly unveiled his “Two Cities” project, featuring plans for a third Istanbul airport, a new bridge over the Bosporus Strait, and a 35-mile canal connecting the Black and Marmara seas. At the end of his presentation, greeted with rapturous applause, he turned to a middle-aged man seated near the stage, and asked, half-jokingly, “Hey, Agaoglu, maybe you’ll want in on the job?”

Two parts Crazy Eddie, one part Gatsby and one part Trump, Ali Agaoglu, No. 527 on Forbes’ billionaire list, is Turkey’s most famous and arguably most notorious construction mogul, a man known just as much for his collection of luxury cars and ex-wives as he is for his links to Erdogan’s government and the state housing authority in particular. When I met him earlier this year at his company’s sprawling offices, Agaoglu did not dispute the content of his May 2011 encounter with Erdogan. “The Prime Minister was kind enough to make that request of us and we will do what is expected,” he said. “We will get our fair share.”

Today, Agaoglu is in police custody. On Tuesday morning, in a series of raids that seemed to catch all of Turkey, including Erdogan’s government, entirely off guard, Turkish police detained at least 50 people on suspicion of tender rigging, money laundering and bribery. In a country where corruption investigations, at least those involving figures close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), are rare, this one has netted a number of very big fish: the sons of three Cabinet members, the mayor of one of Istanbul’s biggest boroughs, the general manager of Turkey’s second biggest state bank, Halkbank, several prominent businessmen, as well as a number of civil servants. And finally, Agaoglu.

According to a written statement released by the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office, the detentions are the result of three separate probes that have been under way for at least 10 months and “include public servants accepting bribery and misuse of office.”

To many Turkish observers, however, the ongoing inquiry isn’t about the famous real estate tycoon or the dozens of other suspects, but about the man who holds the nation’s top office, Erdogan, and the Gulen community, a powerful Islamist movement that has turned into one of the Prime Minister’s most dangerous foes. The movement’s growing grudge with Erdogan’s government, its strength in the police and the judiciary, the main suspects’ links to the AKP, as well as the background of the prosecutors in charge, all speak to the widely aired theory that the Gulenists are the driving force behind the arrests. “It really does look like a Gulen operation, an escalation in [their] power struggle with Erdogan,” says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based expert at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. “This is an attempt by a dark [force] to finish Erdogan,” AKP deputy Mehmet Metiner said at a press conference.

(MORE: The Battle Between Erdogan and the Gulenists)

In a speech delivered just hours after news of the arrests surfaced, Erdogan mentioned neither the investigation nor the Gulenists by name but made sure to warn his audience of what he saw as a plot staged by “gangs” and “dark circles” based “abroad and at home.” Returning to the kind of rhetoric he deployed earlier this summer, when antigovernment protests broke out in major cities across Turkey, he warned against “traps,” “threats,” “ugly methods” and “dirty alliances.”

“We and the nation will not condone those who seek to settle their scores outside the ballot box,” he said.

The Gulen community has been at odds with the Prime Minister over a range of issues, including the wide powers afforded to his intelligence agency, his handling of the Gezi Park protests and his government’s foreign policy. The blowback began with reports that Erdogan was engineering a purge of the Turkish bureaucracy, in which the Gulenists had established a number of powerful fiefdoms. In November, when the government confirmed that it would go ahead with plans to shut down Turkey’s exam prep schools — one of the Gulen movement’s financial lifelines — it reached a peak.

With Tuesday’s arrests, analysts here say, the Gulenists have struck back. The movement, says Jenkins, “is trying to intimidate Erdogan into backing down. They’re desperate to prevent the closure of the prep schools, which they see as an existential issue, because it is their main method of recruitment.”

Through some of its leading supporters, the Gulen movement has denied having a role in the probe. “This operation is a state operation,” tweeted Huseyin Gulerce, a prominent columnist for a Gulenist daily. In an ensuing post, however, Gulerce left plenty of room for readers to draw the exact opposite conclusion. The day before the arrests, he noted, a soccer star turned AKP deputy had resigned from the ruling party, citing the government’s “senseless” decision to close down the prep schools. “The AKP should see this as a friendly warning,” Gulerce said. “Perhaps the last one.” (Both tweets have since been deleted.) In a subsequent statement issued through his lawyer, the movement’s U.S.-based leader, Fethullah Gulen, denied any involvement in the bribery probe.

“This is the biggest scandal of the republic’s history,” Engin Altay, head of the main opposition’s parliamentary group, told Turkish media the day of the arrests. “The Prime Minister should resign.”

That, for Erdogan, is not an option. Having governed over a decade of rapid growth, the Turkish leader remains popular among large swaths of the electorate and is widely believed to have his eyes fixed on the country’s presidency, which will come up for grabs in elections in August next year. Still, he is unlikely to emerge unscathed. In Turkish, the “AK” in AKP means “white” or “pure,” a pun that Erdogan’s party has played on cleverly and successfully, portraying itself as an incorruptible political force and fighting back any suggestions to the contrary, notably by muzzling much of the mainstream media. Whatever the outcome of the corruption probe, the stain it will leave on the AKP’s reputation will be hard to remove. Photos of countless stacks of $100 bills found in the apartment of the Turkish Interior Minister’s son, as well as news of $4.5 million in cash found in the house of Halbank’s general manager, are already making the rounds in TV programs and social media. The markets have shuddered. On Tuesday, shares on the Borsa Istanbul fell by 5.2%, or $12.7 billion, before recovering slightly the following day.

It did not take long for the government to respond. By the end of the day on Wednesday, at least 11 high-ranking police officials, including department chiefs working on the corruption probe, found themselves fired or reassigned. The next day, Istanbul’s police chief was relieved of his post. Erdogan has warned of more to come. “They are trying to act as a state within the state,” he said. “But we will certainly lift the veil on this organization.”

It’s far from certain where the new Erdogan-Gulen row will end, or who will deliver the definitive blow. Perhaps what matters more than who wins is who loses, or who loses more, Rusen Cakir, a columnist for Vatan, wrote in a recent column.

Still, the airing of the government’s laundry, no matter the sides and the agendas involved, might actually be good news for Turkey, at least in the long term, says Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center, a think tank. “Anything that reveals more details about how this country is run and governed is always good,” he says. “There are no more checks and balances in this country on public governance. It’s one reason why we have ended up where we are.”

10 comments
TCYarenCaliskan
TCYarenCaliskan

 The present Prime Minister, wants to bring back the Shari'a. Ataturk in 1923 brought the Swiss Constitutional law. Italian inheritance law. I always did. Held for the benefit of women. All schools are religious schools. The teachers of these schools. birdbrain clergy. No training. Online Quran project includes the Qur'an translation of untranslated for years. TR-3B experimentation. Monogamous marriage. Imagine if you took the cave people. You can have 1 female peer. Today's Arab men one wife marriage. What's going to happen. Atatürk sometimes have to be a dictator. There would be no different.

TCYarenCaliskan
TCYarenCaliskan

Şehsaid, belonging to the large landowners Cult Paragraph Mark; The Sultan and the removal of the Caliphate. He was arrested in Turkey at the moment the British spy Rabınsın. What was he doing there? People encouraged the rebellion. He joined the rebellion of 40 Kurdish villager. And Greek War starts. Why are the Jews and the Armenians are a part of Ataturk. Because democracy was not a threat to them. It was dangerous to the Republic's Sharia. You have a country out of nothing. Featured women suffrage, the only peer marriage to men. This religion of the Sheikhs who manages the only word you rebel communities. What do you do? But you're living 100 years ago.


JasonHudson
JasonHudson

well well...look at the "good guy" who have no thing to do except defending the muslim brotherhood mafia

not really surprised i knew he is corrupt the moment he started to sided with the mb

BenDegilim
BenDegilim

A Not-so-Short But Almost Complete Story - PART 5

What could happen from now on largely depends on Erdogan’s and Turkish people’s stance on the corruption. Being the sworn enemy of corruption wasMr. Erdogan’s greatest proud.A clip of his public speech about how “corruption is taught by fathers to sons and by superiors to subordinates” is now widely shared in social media.If he genuinely support the investigation and let his ministers to be prosecuted, if they are guilty as charged,which is highly unlikely, he could win people’s trust and votes back. He may, alternatively, choose to attack viciously on Gulen movement by using the government instruments and his loyal media at his disposal. After all he is a successful, arguably the most successful in the history of Turkey,politician. He has defeated countless opponents, contenders and enemies to reach where he is now.And he might declare the victory. Alas, that would be nothing but another Pyrrhic victory. Gulen movement survived the most vicious attacks in the past with its non-confrontational principles. Gulen has been long advising his followers to have the faith and ambition to start everything all over even if they are all alone. There will always will be officials inspired by Gulen’s moralteaching based on “chastity, wisdom, justice and courage” continuing giving nightmares to those of the “new elite” of the Turkeywho think themselves above the law. And Turks would have to wait for another savior to free them from “Erdoganist” establishment.

BenDegilim
BenDegilim

A Not-so-Short But Almost Complete Story - PART 2

While all those happening in Islamist politics; Mr.Gulen, a state employed preacher at the time, was advising his flock to stay away from any forms of either terror or politics. Instead he suggested to open up schools, dormitories, prep schools etc. where youngsters from mid and low income families who are -in oppose to CHP elite – traditionally more religiously observant, could receive high-quality education in sciences and embrace traditional and spiritual values. That was important.Gulen’s disapproval of politics and distant stance to Islamist parties in which Mr. Erdogan involved at his early ages caused the grudge against Gulen and his followers in the Islamist circles, most probably, including Mr. Erdogan himself.Over the years Gulen movement opened over thousand schools several universities in Turkey and around the world.Graduates attained important posts in government and private sector and become influential in intellectual life. His increasing influence first alarmed the Kemalist bureaucracy and elite. For years they accused him for having a hidden agenda of turning Turkey into and Islamic state. On the other hand Islamists accused him being a Trojan horse of US and Israel undermining Islamic values and unity of Muslims by advocating democracy and tolerance, especially when he met with Pope Jean Paul as a part of his interfaith dialogue efforts. Nationalists accused him for treason when he opened schools in Kurdish Autonomous Region in Northern Iraq.All the disagreements, however,were put behind after Erdogan’s famous, and now much missed,“balcony speech”in the night of his 2002 election victory. Erdogan promised to start democratic reforms to achieve full EU membership, embrace all ways of life with no alienation of anyone. He proudly announced that he “took off the Islamist shirt”.And he kept his promise for long time. Many archaic and anti-democratic laws have been changed, negotiations with EU have resumed, economy has flourished, and the corruption by the old elite has been stopped which he was the most proud of.He dodged the attacks of bureaucracy and its tentacles in media to shatter the Kemalist establishment. Military retreated back to where it belongs to and high rank officers who conspired for several coup d'etat plots have been prosecuted and sentenced.In his democracy march Erdogan received unreserved support from different groups including liberals, Kurds, devoted Muslims and great help from Gulen inspired government officials, especially the prosecutors, who boldly go against the Kemalist establishment in coup trials. This broad coalition of crowds yearning for more democracy peaked during the 2010 referendum for constitutional changes for democratic reforms. Gulen movement, for the first time, openly supported a political party for the aye votes and contributed to the acceptanceof the changes by mobilizing its followers even from remote part of the world. And contrary to all the common sense or intuition, that was the end of the good relation between Gulen movement and Erdogan.

BenDegilim
BenDegilim

A Not-so-Short But Almost Complete Story - PART 1

The roots of the current struggle in Turkey could be found in the gross mistakes in the foundation of the young republic. Kemal Ataturk envisioned an overly homogenized nation-state where all faith, religion and cultural/ethnical differences were suppressed, sometimes by brutal force. Many Islamic scholars were exiled, prisoned or hung; Kurds were banned to speak or publish in their native language; Alawites were gassed in the caves in the town of Dersim.All those resulted in three different types of reactions: Kurds grabbed their rifles went up to the mountains and started a guerilla war terrorizing mostly the Kurds in the south-eastern part of Turkey. Part of the observant Muslims subscribed to Islamist politics and formed political party(ies). The last group which is the vast majority of the observant Muslims focused on investing in the young generation hoping that well-educated and well-connected-to-the spiritual values one day would change everything over.Although almost all free elections brought mainstream parties (e.g. Mr. Menderes’ AP, Mr. Ozal’s ANAP) into the power after 1946, their governance was strictly controlled and limited by the Kemalist bureaucracy and military which overthrew the elected government and shut down the national assembly several times.The civil and military bureaucracy has always been aligned with the Kemalist CHP party and formed an alliance with the secular elites to control not only the government but all the resources in the country including media and economy. By the universal law of “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” that level of control led an unimaginable corruption. Especially the corruption and failure in municipalities led the victory of Mr. Erbakan’sIslamist party and also made Mr. Erdogan mayor of Istanbul the largest city of Turkey. That “outrageous” success stimulated the nerve center of the Kemalist establishment and started a huge utterly obscene camping to take Mr. Erbakandown and they reached theirvictory, that is called today as “February 28th post-modern coup d'etat “. A Pyrrhic victory.His party was shut down without any legitimate reason; he and his comrades were banned from politics. Learning from his great mentor’s mistakes Mr. Erdogan and couple of his close friends founded a new party (AKP) which looked more mainstream. AKP achieved a undisputable victory in 2002 election by receiving almost half of the all votes.Boomerang was hitting back.

kon-tiki
kon-tiki

Erdogan is taking the county back to stone ages with his Islamist ideologies. 

MohamedAhmed1
MohamedAhmed1

Erdogan and his party are rotten to the core and are in cahoots with terrorist groups like The Muslim Brotherhood .. they are all rotten and sadly very good at hiding it.

Yoshi
Yoshi

This "new development" has been going on for several years.
 The muslim conquering is much like rust. It never sleeps.

h/t NY

firmsoil
firmsoil

This fundamentalist government and islamists are taking turkey fast back to the dark medieval ages!