ISTANBUL — Call it Turkey's Watergate. A scandal is brewing here that not only threatens to bring down the current government, but could shake the foundations of the country's entire political system.
And, in a crucial implication for the United States and Western allies, the scandal could strengthen Turkey's new Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan. A more-powerful Mr. Erbakan could further tilt Turkey - an important NATO ally - away from its traditional Western stance and further toward Islamic Iran and the Arab states.
The crux of the scandal is this: In trying to combat so-called "enemies of the state," top government officials may have become entangled with the mafia. The offspring of this union may include murder, heroin trade, and other dastardly deeds.
As yet, little has been proved, but Turkey's news media and people are talking of little else.
Like the Watergate buildings in Washington that symbolize President Richard Nixon's corruption, a small town in western Turkey named Susurluk is now a catch-all term for sleaze at the top levels of Turkey's government.
It was near Susurluk that a speeding Mercedes-Benz collided with a truck Nov. 3. Inside the Mercedes was a motley crew: a senior police official, a notorious crime boss, a member of parliament, and a former beauty queen who was the reputed mistress of several mafia dons.
Only the member of parliament, Sedat Bucak, survived the crash. In the trunk police found machine guns, silencers, police IDs, and forged passports. The crime boss, Abdullah Catli, had been wanted for 18 years by police and Interpol, the international crime-fighting agency. Catli's fingerprints were also recently found on one of the guns used in the gangland-style killing of casino king Omer Luftu in July.
Since the crash, Mr. Bucak and other officials have been unable to explain why these people were riding together. Turkey's interior minister, Mehmet Agar, was forced to resign after trying to dismiss questions about the crash.
Turkey's public has long suspected that top officials are linked to the mafia and, as one Turkey watcher says, "The events of Susurluk have confirmed those doubts."
Since the crash, a series of yet-unproved charges has painted a picture of top officials making an ominous calculation: that shady or illegal groups could combat so-called enemies of the state better than the government could through legal means.
These enemies include militant Kurds, who have waged a campaign of terror that has killed some 20,000 civilians in a quest for an independent homeland in the east of Turkey, as well as extremists on the right and left of the political spectrum.
Some politicians and others are now calling for more investigations into the scandal. They say the mafia may have used its ties to top officials to protect its part in Turkey's massive heroin trade.
Says one diplomat: "The fact that there are links between organized crime, criminal activity, and government is nothing new in Turkey. There has always been an element of Turkish political leaders who are willing to overlook illegalities."
There is an assumption that ties between the government and the mafia couldn't have occurred without the knowledge of recent prime ministers. Three recent premiers are still major figures in Turkish politics: current Deputy Prime Minister Tansu Ciller; current opposition leader Mesmut Yilmaz, and current President Suleyman Demirel.
The politician with the most charges aimed at her is Mrs. Ciller. She didn't help her cause when she recently referred to Catli, the crime boss, as a "patriot," "a man who used bullets for the state."
Meanwhile, Mr. Yilmaz, the opposition leader, is calling for a full investigation. And Mr. Demirel is trying to safeguard public confidence in the Turkish government. Last week, he gathered the leaders to work out a plan of action but could only extract from them a statement saying, "Trust placed in the democratic system should be preserved."
Erbakan, who governs in a coalition with Ciller's True Path party, hasn't been implicated. The West views him with suspicion because of his state visits to Iran and Libya, as well as his signing last week of a $2-billion trade pact with Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Erbakan was elected in large part because of a pledge to clean up politics, and he promises to fully investigate the Susurluk affair.
Erbakan might call early elections to try to dump Ciller as a coalition partner, but a more likely scenario, analysts say, is that he will keep the current coalition and use Ciller's weakness to more fully control the government's actions. As one opposition leader, Deniz Baykal, said, "For Erbakan, a bird in the cage is better than a bird in the tree."