Turkey woke up to an unprecedented corruption inquiry last Tuesday morning, with police raids targeting the sons of three cabinet ministers, a Justice and Development Party mayor of one of Istanbul’s most conservative boroughs, several bureaucrats, businessmen and the head of the state-owned Halkbank.
In a country where the media has been muzzled, the news and information have been manipulated and the separation of powers have been undermined for years, it was not an ordinary occurrence to see the big and the powerful being accused openly of what looked like credible evidence of wrong doing.
If the $4.5 million in cash seized in the house of Süleyman Aslan, the general manager of Halkbank wasn’t surreal enough, the alleged bribes said to be paid to sons of ministers and other senior civil servants, by an Azeri businessman accused of running a gold smuggling ring to Iran, certainly was.
It transpired that there were three separate investigations conducted by the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office and they had been investigating for at least ten months before coming public with it.
Serious allegations of malpractice and bribery by public officials reached right into the heart of a government which insisted being called “AK”, meaning pure.
Faced with this strong onslaught to their reputation, the Prime minister and his senior officials responded in character. They pointed the finger at dark forces both inside and out, to those who try to grab power and to change the direction of the country by anything but the ballot box.
Just like other times when the government was being put on the spot, underhand methods by Americans and Israelis were blamed, too.
For good measure, the minister whose name was mentioned among those probed went on to blame those deliberately “trying to sink the economy”.
Mr. Erdogan made it clear that he would not be intimidated. Five police chiefs, including the heads of the financial crime and organized crime units were promptly removed in Istanbul the day after 52 people were detained.
But the markets weren’t convinced. On the day the scandal broke out, shares on the Istanbul stock market fell by 5.2 percent.
The prime minister may have been kept in the dark by the judiciary and the police chiefs about what was to come and the interior minister whose son was one of the accused might have heard the operation from TV news, but the rest of the country was quick to identify the hand that delivered the blow.
The powerful Islamist Gulen community’s strength in the judiciary and the police force has been known for many years. Their growing dissatisfaction with the Erdogan government has recently turned into bitter public battle, inflamed by attacks and counter-attacks in the pro-government and Gulen community owned media.
As in most Islamist movements, it was not unusual to see high levels of pragmatism and solidarity against the common enemy and the AKP of Mr. Erdogan and the community of Mr. Gulen maintained an appearance of a strong alliance over the years, even if they differed behind the scenes.
However, in recent years, failures of Turkish foreign policy have damaged the Gulen community affiliated businessmen’s interests abroad. Hostility towards Israel, growing security threats arising from the crisis in Syria and worsening relations with the United States worried them, too.
The government’s high handed response to the Gezi protests last summer has shaken Turkey’s international standing even further.
Fethullah Gulen openly challenged Erdogan’s leadership-style during the Gezi events. A few months later, a blatant show-down over university prep-schools, where the Gulen community has a strong hold, came into light. Fethullah Gulen and his supporters in the media have also been dropping hints in recent weeks about uncovering embarrassing information about those in power.
The political power struggle between the two Islamist movements has now reached a point where the elected prime minister accused his powerful foe becoming a state within a state.
He is not far wrong, either. Led by the US-based imam Fethullah Gulen, the Gulen community has meddled with the country’s justice system before. They have resorted to dubious methods to get their opponents behind bars in questionable trials.
In order to break the back of the military and the militant secular establishment, the government of Mr. Erdogan happily went along with it.
We had witnessed party leaders, outspoken opponents and critical journalists being brought down with illegally obtained recordings of their intimate lives or jailed for many years. When Mr. Gulen and his supporters made veiled threats against the government, most people expected to see more of the same, this time against their former allies, the government.
What we are seeing in this latest episode is much more than that. The Gulen community is taking on Mr. Erdogan and his government in a way that burns all bridges.
It is not that we are hearing allegations of corruption for the first time. Even if the Turkish media has been prevented from doing its job of holding the government and big businesses to account, others have been doing it. Just look at the Transparency International scores for 2013. http://www.transparency.org/country#TUR
Wasn’t the spark for the Gezi protests so called urban-transformation policies, whose proponents are now under investigation for corruption and nepotism?
There is no doubt that the Prime Minister Erdogan and his government took a serious blow to their reputation from this latest scandal.
It will not be possible to get away with it just by blaming dark forces and those wanting to stop Turkey’s rise to a global power anymore.
Mr. Erdogan, the shrewd politician he is, may still have something in his sleeve that may give him the upper hand against his Islamist foes.
The opposition may or may not pull itself together, rise to the occasion and become a credible alternative in the years to come.
Turkey has turbulent days ahead, with many uncertainties.
One thing is for sure, after this week’s developments, whatever the immediate outcome nothing will be the same ever again.
This post is also available in: Turkish