Long shadow of corruption allegations in Turkey
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.