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As Turkey's Corruption Crisis Gets Personal, Erdogan Tightens Control

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded to the growing scandal by tightening control over state institutions. Where will it end?
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded to the growing scandal by tightening control over state institutions. Where will it end?
For months, the corruption scandal rocking Turkey has centered on people around Recep Tayyip Erdogan while stopping just short of the prime minister himself.

But the release on February 24 of an alleged recording of a phone conversation between him and his adult son Bilal is now making the scandal very personal for Erdogan indeed.

In the recording, released anonymously on the Internet, Erdogan purportedly tells his son to get tens of millions of dollars out of the house because an investigation is closing in. The prime minister has called the tape a gross fabrication but the country's leading opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), says it has confirmed the recording's authenticity.

The recording is the latest escalation in a political crisis that has seen almost daily leaks regarding alleged corruption by government officials followed by ever more aggressive efforts by Erdogan to stem the presumed sources of the leaks.

Because the sources of the leaks usually seem to be from within the government, particularly law enforcement bodies, the crisis has taken on the strange appearance of a war within the government itself. That has given it a menacing air as Erdogan responds by trying to continually tighten his control over Turkey's state institutions, with no indication of where he might stop.

"It seems [Erdogan's] regime is creating almost a state of emergency as he is tightening his executive grip," notes Tunc Aybak, an expert on Turkish politics at Middlesex University in Britain. "Since the corruption allegations started, he has heavily intervened in the prosecution and enforcement bodies, sacking prosecutors or dismissing them from their positions, and introducing new legislation. For instance, his party is introducing new measures to control the Internet, subordinating the intelligence services to his personal office, making them even less accountable to the judicial processes."

War On Gulen Movement

Erdogan has justified his tighter grip by claiming his government is under attack by a "parallel state" that has heavily infiltrated law enforcement bodies and the media and poses a threat to Turkey's stability. He has never named his enemy directly but used references that make it clear to Turkish listeners he is accusing the followers of Fethuallah Gulen, an influential Muslim cleric who lives in the United States.

The Gulen movement, which operates a widespread network of private schools in Turkey, originally allied with Erdogan's religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) to bring him to power in 2003. However, the two allies have since fallen out, reportedly over power-sharing issues and over Erdogan's authoritarian personal style.

Wolfango Piccoli, an expert on Turkey at Teneo Intelligence, a U.S.-based political-risk-advisory service, says Erdogan's next step after the direct personal attack on February 24 is likely to be to a crackdown on the Gulen movement's network of schools in Turkey.

"What might come next is the speeding up of a draft bill that is aimed at closing down [university] preparatory schools in Turkey, which are basically vital to the Gulen movement for two reasons: because they provide a vast amount of financial resources and they are a phenomenal ground for enrolment for Gulen," Piccoli says. "So, this draft bill could now be approved very quickly, more quickly than it might have been before the tape was leaked on Monday."

The Gulen schools typically offer private weekend courses to high-school students to help them pass the national university-entrance exam. Under the draft bill now before the AKP-dominated parliament, all such prep schools would be turned into private, preparatory high schools beginning with the next school year, putting them under closer state supervision.

As the political crisis in Turkey has ballooned it has become a catchall for numerous issues that worry Turks about their country today. Those include corruption, the independence of state institutions, and the authoritarian manner of the prime minister himself.

The crisis has long outgrown its relatively simple scope when it began in December. That was as an announced probe by prosecutors into alleged influence-peddling worth millions of dollars to enable Tehran to evade some of the international sanctions then in force over the Iranian nuclear program.

Today, it is so diffuse -- including Erdogan's claims of an existential struggle between the government and a "parallel state" -- that most Turks are not only angered by the crisis but bewildered.

"We have been witnessing protests -- small-scale protests, I would say, and largely focused on some big cities like Ankara and Istanbul -- since the last summer. Even [on February 25] citizens took to the streets of 11 or 12 cities in Turkey to protest against the alleged corruption of the government," Piccoli says. "But the people who are demonstrating in Turkey now are basically people who are bewildered by what is going on, with this sort of fight between what seems to be two dark forces, and they are essentially just fed up with this political drama and they are wondering what might happen next."

The country holds municipal elections next month, which will give voters their first chance since the crisis began to make their opinions felt at the ballot box. However, because voters will mainly be concerned with local issues, the poll may provide only an imperfect referendum on how the public views the political storm that continues to rock the country.

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