Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today fought back against yet another political scandal, claiming that wiretap recordings allegedly of him him telling his son to move large sums of cash to evade a corruption probe were “unscrupulously fabricated.”
While refuting the allegations in a speech to his ruling party group in parliament today Mr. Erdogan also decried the widespread wire-tapping of senior officials in Turkey. He was trying to head off the latest twist in a graft probe that has already prompted the resignation of three ministers and the government reassignment of hundreds of prosecutors and thousands of police officers.
"This is not an attack on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the AK Party, but an attack on the Turkish Republic,” the prime minister said.
The stakes are high for Erdogan, whose Justice and Development (AK) Party has governed for 11 years with an ever-increasing majority. Local elections on March 30 are seen as a measure of support after widespread protests last June. Since, Turkish financial markets have been battered and the currency has slumped, and that was even before the graft probe reached far into government.
Raids in Istanbul and Ankara in December put more than 50 people in detention after a yearlong surveillance operation to track alleged corruption in land development and other misdeeds. Polls indicate some impact on the prime minister's popularity, though his party base appears to have so far remained strong.
The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is taking advantage of the explosive allegations. Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu played the recordings in a meeting of CHP lawmakers today, and predicted that "new things will be disclosed soon." Mr. Kilicdaroglu said: “My advice to you: Either you take a helicopter and flee abroad or you resign,” said Mr. Kilicdaroglu.
Earlier he had repeated his call for the Erdogan government to step down, and said that Turkey could not progress with “this dirt.”
The recordings are alleged to be conversations between Erdogan and his son, Bilal, from Dec. 17, the day the corruption probe was launched as police raided the houses of some ministers’ sons and ranking businessmen and made arrests. Shoeboxes full of hundreds of thousands of dollars were found in the home of one state bank director.
In the alleged calls, Erdogan appears to alert his son to the raids and asks him to dispose of cash from the family home with the help of his sister and other relatives to bring all cash to “zero” by distributing it to associates. In a follow up call, Bilal supposedly tells his father that 30 million Euros ($40 million) have yet to be moved. The government has blamed a “parallel state” of followers in the judiciary and police working for the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who was once a close ally of Erdogan, for the leaks.
"They went and made a shameless montage and released it," said Erdogan of the recording. "They are even listening to the state's encrypted telephones. That's how low they are."
Two pro-government Turkish newspapers claimed this week that 7,000 phones have been tapped, including those of many senior government officials. Erdogan said today that even his encrypted calls with President Abdullah Gul had been hacked.
"We will reveal one-by-one all the disgraces of the parallel organization and we will make those who walk with them so embarrassed they won't be able to go out into the street," said Erdogan. "The lobby of those who couldn't win the people's support, the mob of losers came together once more on December 17. Now they are saying 'we are going to rule Turkey."
The 11-minute audio was posted on YouTube late Monday, garnering 1.5 million views by this morning. It was later taken down at Turkish government request, but its contents spread widely on social media, and it was played over loudspeakers at a protest rally tonight in Istanbul. Police reportedly used tear gas and water canon to break up the protest.
It is not yet possible to confirm the authenticity of the recording. But Turkey’s chief prosecutor has started an investigation into the leak of the alleged telephone conversation to find out how it was made, and whether any wiretaps were legally authorized or not.
The opposition CHP leader claimed that his party had confirmed the authenticity of the recordings, and that they were as “solid as Mt. Ararat” – the mountain in eastern Turkey where legend holds that the Biblical Noah’s Ark came to rest after the flood.