Long shadow of corruption allegations in Turkey

Friday 03/07/2015
A Republican People’s Party (CHP) MP holds a sign with a quote from the Prophet Mohammad, which reads: “Even if the thief is my daughter Fatima, I will punish her”, during a debate at the Turkish parliament.

Istanbul - Corruption allegations against leading politicians have made a comeback as a hot political issue in Turkey and are likely to hound President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party for some time.

The corruption issue is thought to have played a role in weaken­ing Erdogan’s Justice and Devel­opment Party (AKP) in recent elections when it lost the parlia­mentary majority it had enjoyed for more than 12 years. Opposition parties are expected to place the corruption issue on the agenda of the newly elected assembly, signal­ling more trouble for the AKP.

Erdogan dismissed the accusa­tions as a plot to damage the gov­ernment. But even former presi­dent Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of the AKP, has called for a thorough investigation of the corruption charges, which surfaced in Decem­ber 2013.

The accusations centre on Reza Zarrab, a Turkish businessman of Iranian descent, who allegedly paid off government ministers in return for a free rein to conduct a high-volume gold trade with Iran.

Four AKP ministers resigned in connection with the claims. The AKP, using its majority in parlia­ment, blocked efforts to force the four to court. In the wake of the allegations, thousands of prosecu­tors and police officers were fired or reassigned before investigations by the judiciary were formally dropped.

While critics spoke of a cover-up, Erdogan and the AKP said the accusations were part of a plot by Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, a former AKP supporter who has turned against Erdogan, to bring down the government. Gulen de­nied the charges. Now the allega­tions are making a comeback and even some of Erdogan’s supporters criticise the government for acting as if nothing had happened.

An awards ceremony on June 21st involving Zarrab is causing acute embarrassment for the AKP government, which remains in of­fice until a new cabinet is estab­lished.

Pictures of Zarrab receiving an award from Economy Minister Ni­hat Zeybekci and Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus made the front pages of many Turkish newspapers in recent days. Kur­tulmus has since said he would not have attended the ceremony if he had known that he was to give an award to Zarrab.

“Reza Zarrab is one of the reasons why the AKP lost votes” on June 7th, Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist for the pro-Erdogan daily Yeni Sa­fak, wrote on June 24th. “The only thing that was missing was Reza Zarrab receiving an award. Now that has been done as well.”

With scathing irony, Selvi added that the AKP should erect a monu­ment in honour of Zarrab and use pictures of the four ex-ministers accused of corruption on campaign posters in the future.

Selvi is not the only pro-gov­ernment voice calling the AKP’s handling of the affair into ques­tion. Faruk Kose, a columnist of the Islamist Yeni Akit newspaper, told the T24 news portal that it was wrong for a minister to accept a $261,000 watch — allegedly from Zarrab — in a country where mil­lions have to get by on a minimum wage of roughly $375 a month.

The AKP is struggling to come up with a convincing response to the dilemma posed by the fanned interest into the corruption affair. Efforts by AKP politicians such as Kurtulmus to distance themselves from Zarrab are questionable from the party’s point of view because they do not match the theory put forward that says all allegations are lies and part of a coup attempt.

A decision by Gul to weigh in on the corruption issue has increased pressure on the AKP. Ahmet Sever, a long-time Gul adviser who has written a book revealing a rift be­tween the former head of state and Erdogan, quoted Gul as saying he would have sent the four former AKP ministers to court for corrup­tion if it had been in his power.

The AKP’s political rivals are working on plans to make sure that Erdogan’s party will not be able to sit out the storm over the corrup­tion issue.

The secularist Republican Peo­ple’s Party (CHP), the second big­gest bloc in the newly elected parliament behind the AKP, says it wants to restart efforts in parlia­ment to put the former AKP minis­ters on trial.

The corruption issue is also like­ly to be part of forthcoming nego­tiations between parties to form a new government. News reports say the AKP could try to put together a coalition either with the CHP or with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But both the CHP and the MHP have vowed to clear up the corruption cases.