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Once-staunch ally turns on Erdogan in Turkish corruption probe

More than 50 people were detained in Turkey, many with government ties, in a corruption probe that could destabilize Prime Minister Erdogan's power base.

By Alexander Christie-MillerCorrespondent / December 17, 2013

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan speaks during Turkey-EU Readmission Agreement Signing Ceremony in Ankara, Dec. 16. Turkey and the EU signed an agreement on Monday allowing EU governments to send back illegal immigrants crossing into Europe from Turkey, in a move highlighting a thaw in relations between Ankara and the 28-member bloc.

Umit Bektas/Reuters

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Istanbul

Turkish police today detained more than 50 people, including the sons of three cabinet ministers, in a corruption probe striking close to the heart of government.

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Analysts say the detentions appear to be part of an attack on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration by a powerful Islamic network that was formerly its ally and which has considerable influence within the police and judiciary.

The raids in Istanbul and Ankara came after a yearlong surveillance operation focusing on alleged graft and bribery in the awarding of state contracts and designation of land for development, as well as gold smuggling, Turkish media reported. The claims threaten to destabilize Mr. Erdogan and seriously harm his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) prospects in local elections scheduled for March.

Speaking at a rally in Konya today, Erdogan did not mention the probe, but made comments that appeared to suggest it was part of a plot against the country.

“Turkey is not a banana republic or a third class tribal state.… Nobody inside or outside my country can stir up or trap my country," he said.

In addition to the ministers' sons, those arrested included the AKP's Mustafa Demir, mayor of Istanbul’s Fatih district, as well as the CEO of the state-run bank Halkbank, a major property tycoon, and several government officials.

Istanbul’s chief prosecutor, Turan Colakkadi, confirmed to Turkish media that his office was overseeing the investigation, but declined to give details since it was continuing.

No more shared enemies

Most political observers attribute the raids to a deepening feud between Erdogan and the Gulen Movement, a powerful Islamic organization whose leader, Fethullah Gulen, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

The movement, which has a moderate Islamic agenda and a large network of affiliated business and media entities, was once a key ally of Erdogan.

However, as the power of their shared enemy – Turkey's former secular elite – has dwindled, mistrust between the two sides has grown. In recent months, Gulen has expressed unease at Erdogan's perceived authoritarianism, making veiled references to him as "The Pharaoh."

Last month, the government announced plans to shut down a network of private extra tuition schools linked to the movement. On Monday, an AKP lawmaker close to the Gulen Movement resigned in protest of the government’s decision. 

"To treat these people who have staunchly supported the government in every issue as enemies is at best nothing but ingratitude,” said Hakan Sukur, a former professional soccer player who had been a popular figure in the party.

“This is the point of no return,” says Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based political analyst with Global Source Partners. “Both sides have developed so much suspicion of other’s motives that this is now all out war. Erdogan cannot allow the Gulen ‘church’ to operate freely after this.”

Yesilada says the investigation could seriously damage the government’s support ahead of local elections, as well as presidential elections later in the summer, saying that the Gulenists' media organizations have the power to influence conservative public opinion. 

“The conservative base is surely disappointed, and some will switch to other parties purely out of disgust.”

Yesilada believes the government may in turn exert pressure to transfer prosecutors investigating the case and shut down the investigation.

It could then start a purge of government officials and civil servants with links to Gulen’s network. “You will see a massive assault on pro-Gulen business and media, and a purge of the bureaucracy.”

Targeting the Gulen Movement, which has extensive business interests, could damage Turkey's economy and fracture the conservative voting bloc that has delivered Erdogan to power in the past three general elections. 

Corruption

The probe itself appears to touch on the allegedly corrupt relationship between the government and the construction industry, a topic that has become taboo to discuss in the Turkish media.

According to the Today’s Zaman newspaper, which has links with the Gulen Movement, one strand of the investigation focused on corruption at the environment and urban ministry and improper development on protected land, mainly in Istanbul’s historic Fatih district.

While serving on a parliamentary panel charged with scrutinizing state-owned enterprises last year, opposition member Aykut Erdogdu released a report alleging that the Mass Housing Administration, known by its Turkish acronym TOKI, was at the center of a series of shady property deals carried out in exchange for the awarding of public contracts. 

Mr. Bayraktar, the urban planning minister, confessed when challenged with the report that corrupt dealings occurred during his 2002-2011 tenure as head of TOKI .

“We were weak, as administrators we should have seen what was going on.… Whoever is guilty, they should be punished – including me,” he told parliamentarians.

Reports of the exchange went largely unreported in the media, and days later Bayraktar retracted his statement.

A battle of headlines

Mr. Erdogdu said the issue was ignored because Turkey’s media organizations, most of which are owned by large conglomerations with business interests vulnerable to government influence, feared antagonizing AKP.

“They cannot broadcast corruption cases mostly because these media tycoons rely for their wealth on being awarded government contracts,” he said.

The last major government corruption scandal reported in Turkey was in 2008, involving embezzlement by a charity in Germany with links to AKP.

Dogan Holding, a business conglomerate whose media empire aggressively covered the scandal, was later hit with a $2.5 billion tax fine seen by many as punishment.

How much damage the latest scandal causes the government may depend on how the media bosses react this time.

Erdogdu believes the situation could evolve similarly to that during the mass protests earlier this summer, when media at first ignored the unrest.

“There was a huge public reaction against it, and they were forced to change their stance," he says. "It is the same thing now.”

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