David O'Byrne in Istanbul -
Addressing a conference of Turkish ambassadors in the capital Ankara on January 15, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan outlined what he expected of those bureaucrats charged with representing his government abroad. "We expect you to exert more effort to defeat this treacherous plot targeting Turkey by telling your counterparts the truth. I request you to underline that what's going on is not a corruption operation but a coup in the form of a corruption operation," he claimed.
What Erdogan was referring to was a series of corruption investigations launched by Turkish Police on December 17, involving dozens of arrests and resulting in 24 people, including the sons of Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Interior Minister Muammer Guler and the CEO of state owned Halk Bank, facing charges.
Both ministers were forced to resign along with Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar, whose son was arrested and questioned but not charged, while a resulting cabinet reshuffle also saw the unpopular minister in charge of EU negotiations, Egemen Bagis, replaced following revelations of close contacts with an Iranian businessman also facing charges as a result of the probe.
Erdogan's call might look like a desperate attempt to help deflect attention from a scandal that threatens to undermine an increasingly unpopular administration. And up to a point it is just that. Turkey is two months into an 18-month election cycle involving local elections in March, presidential elections later this year - in which Erdogan is expected to be a candidate - and culminating in next year's general election, campaigns for which many are expecting to be highlighted by further "revelations".
However, at the same time few in Turkey would deny his allegation that the corruption probes were implemented by a "hidden force" aimed at undermining his government, with fingers pointing at the US-based Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen.
Gulen's Hizmet movement has long been accused of using entryism - a political strategy in which an organisation encourages its members or supporters to join another - to gain influence within the Turkish police and judiciary. The group is believed to have been pivotal in the prosecution and jailing of 300 Turkish military officers in the controversial "Ergenekon" and "Slegehammer" trials. Indeed, Zekeriya Oz, the prosecutor who instigated the ongoing corruption probes, was also responsible for the Ergenekon trial.
But Gulen was until recently also a strong supporter of Erdogan, credited by many as having helped the PM's Justice and Development Party (AKP) come to power and remain there for 11 years almost unchallenged.
That era is reckoned to have ended around 18 months ago with Erdogan reportedly unhappy at the extent of Hizmet's influence within Turkey and Hizmet unhappy at the AKP's attempts to rein in its operations, including legislating to ban the movement's highly lucrative chain of university cramming schools.
Since the start of the corruption probe, Erdogan has been vociferous in his condemnation of what he describes as an illegal "gang" operating within the state and judiciary, even describing them as "assassins" - a mild enough jibe to western minds, but deeply insulting to devout Sunni Muslims for whom the Shia Assassin sect remains heretical and evil, even 750 years after it was wiped out. Yet to date Erdogan has stopped short of directly naming Gulen or Hizmet.
Gulen for his part has commented only to deny any attempt at targeting the government, although journalists writing for newspapers belonging to Hizmet-affiliated companies have been less reticent, describing Erdogan as a "dictator" and warning against his "authoritarianism".
None of this, however, means that the corruption investigations were not justified. Allegations of impropriety relating to zoning and building permits in some AKP-controlled areas of Istanbul, and to Halkbank's handling of payments for oil and gas imports from Iran, are well documented.
Details of the charges to be levelled have yet to emerge. In commenting on his forced resignation, former environment minister Bayraktar complained that whatever he had done had been done with the full knowledge of Prime Minister Erdogan. If he was obliged to resign, he argued, so should Erdogan.
Yet rather than resign, Erdogan and his government have launched a war of attrition against the Turkish police and judiciary, with hundreds of senior police officers and state prosecutors either sacked or transferred. Many of those prosecutors responsible for pursuing the corruption probes have found themselves removed from the cases and three of them are now themselves the subject of investigations launched by Turkey's justice ministry.
The first result of the crackdown appears to have been the halting of a second round of corruption probes, with police refusing to act on instructions from prosecutors to arrest 41 people, including several leading Turkish businessmen and the Saudi businessman Yasin al-Qadi, who spent 12 years on a UN Security Council blacklist accused of links to Al-Qaeda.
Repeated claims in the Turkish media that those to be detained included Erdogan's son Bilal Erdogan were denied on January 16 by Turkey's justice minister, Bekir Bozdag.
More worryingly still, the government has announced plans to amend the constitution to give it direct control over Turkey's Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) - a move that would curtail judicial independence and which has already been criticized by the Council of Europe. Further, it plans new legislation governing the internet that will allow officials to quickly block content deemed to be "violating privacy" without a court order - restrictions which, it has been noted, were not available three years ago when both main opposition parties were rocked by sex scandals as a result of videos posted anonymously online.
Not surprisingly, those opposition parties, the Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) and the nationalist Action Party (MHP), are hoping to benefit from the turmoil which has already seen eight of Erdogan's MP's quit the AKP.
Rumours abound that if the AKP suffers major losses in the coming local polls, current president and party co-founder, Abdullah Gul, may return to lead the party. Although such a transition would not be smooth, it is not so unlikely a scenario.
Turks traditionally vote with their wallets and while AKP stewardship of the economy has generally benefited the majority of its voters, the recent instability has not.
With Turkey relying on imports for the bulk of its oil and gas needs, the 19% deprecation in the Turkish lira since last May has been reflected both in retail energy prices and in the current account deficit, which continues to feed inflation. Erdogan's accusations of nefarious plots may be widely believed by his supporters and his strong personal popularity may still mitigate against his removal as AKP leader, but it remains to be seen how long voters will tolerate having to pay for the results of such a strategy.
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