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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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.”