Turkish PM Erdogan's allies desert as crisis deepens

The resignation of top ministers, widening corruption allegations, and conspiracy theories are shaking confidence in Turkey's ruling elite.

By , Correspondent

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    Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his party members in Ankara, Turkey, on Wednesday. Three Cabinet ministers resigned on December 25, amidst a sweeping corruption and bribery scandal that has targeted Mr. Erdogan's allies in one of the worst political crises of his more than 10 years in power.
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Turkey’s government slipped into deeper turmoil Thursday as more ministers in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government resigned and Mr. Erdogan and his allies stepped up rhetoric complaining of a foreign conspiracy.

The resignations, recriminations, and a widening corruption investigation have shaken confidence in the decade-long tenure of Erdogan and his Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey’s economy has been one of the strongest in the region for years, outpacing many European nations as well, and Erdogan’s leadership has been embraced in the West as a stabilizing influence amid the Syrian civil war, political tumult in Egypt, and the Iranian nuclear impasse.

Remarks by Erdogan’s allies and press leaks in Turkish newspapers suggesting a Western-backed plot have also unnerved Turkey’s allies. Last weekend, Erdogan himself lashed out at unnamed foreign ambassadors, accusing them of doing “provocative things.” Some Turkish newspapers have printed photographs of the US ambassador on their front pages, demanding he leave the country.

Recommended: Think you know Turkey? Take our country quiz.

The simmering unrest gained wide attention earlier this month, when police raided the offices of bankers, business leaders, and others with ties to the prime minister, arresting dozens. The Erdogan government then fired police officials; Reuters reports that, according to local newspaper Hurriyet, up to 550 police officers, including senior commanders, have been dismissed in the past week.

On Wednesday, three government ministers resigned abruptly: Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, Interior Minister Muammer Guler, and Environment and Urban planning minister Erdogan Bayraktar. Press reports say Mr. Caglayan’s and Mr. Guler’s sons were among the 24 people arrested in the corruption investigation.

Mr. Bayraktar, meanwhile, said in a live TV interview that he had been forced to resign, and he suggested Erdogan was also involved in corrupt real estate deals.

“The prime minister has the right to work with the ministers he prefers,” Mr. Bayraktar said, according to The New York Times. “But I can’t accept this pressure on me to resign. The prime minister too has to resign.”

Erdogan later announced he had shuffled 10 other ministers’ posts in his cabinet, and today, Hurriyet reported that Erdogan told reporters that he was the real target of the graft probe.  “If they try to aim at Tayyip Erdogan through this, they will [be left empty-handed]. They know it and that’s why they are attacking [the ministers],” he said.

The rhetoric, particularly that blaming the US, has worried Turkey’s Western allies. According to The New York Times, US officials called off high-level meetings with Turkish counterparts over the weekend, fearing that Amb. Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., whose name has been appearing on protest placards and newspaper front pages, would be ordered to leave the country.

The growing crisis pushed down the Turkish currency, the lira, and sent interest rates on Turkish bonds climbing to three-month highs, The Wall Street Journal said.

With the next election cycle set to begin in March, Turkish analysts and Western observers have focused on two possible underlying factors for the crisis. The first is the state-run bank Halkbank, which news reports said has been investigated by the US for skirting sanctions against Iran. Hurriyet said Halkbank chief executive Süleyman Aslan had been charged with taking bribes and that the police reportedly found $4.5 million in cash stored in shoe boxes in his home. 

The second factor is the influence of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic religious leader who lives in the US and whose followers include police and judicial officials in Turkey. Mr. Gulen and his Hizmet social and religious organization have been allies of Erdogan in the past, but remarks published on the Hizmet website show a break with Erdogan, accusing the prime minister of using nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric to drum up support ahead of next year’s elections.

Erdogan’s government has been accused of growing authoritarianism by opponents and critics. In May, police violently cracked down on demonstrators protesting a government decision to build a shopping mall at Gezi Park, a popular outdoor park in central Istanbul. The demonstrations were some of the largest in Turkey in years, and the police crackdown outraged and shocked many, particularly among the more liberal Istanbul electorate.  

In a speech to Turkish business groups today, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu argued that Turkey’s economic growth and political stability had made it a target for meddling outsiders.

“The revolution done by Turkey in its geography has disturbed some,” Mr. Davutoglu said, according to Hurriyet. “If today there are some making some calculations about us, if we have disturbed some, be sure that this is due to the revolution we have started in this land.”

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