New York Times: Amid Graft Inquiry in Turkey, 5 Police Officials Fired

The corruption dragnet, in which the sons of three cabinet ministers were also detained on allegations of bribery, is a threat to Mr. Erdogan, involving as it does the same issue that incited the wave of antigovernment demonstrations that swept the country last summer: the construction business and the public financing of real estate.


Baris Guler, in sunglasses, was one of the sons of cabinet ministers detained in a corruption inquiry that has highlighted tensions between followers of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen. Photo: Kursat Bayhan/Zaman Daily, via Reuters.

The police raided the offices of several businessmen with close ties to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation, immediately raising the stakes of an unfolding political contest of wills here between two men who have long held sway over the country’s Muslim masses: an ailing and aging Turkish preacher who lives on a sprawling compound in Pennsylvania, and Mr. Erdogan.

The corruption dragnet, in which the sons of three cabinet ministers were also detained on allegations of bribery, is a threat to Mr. Erdogan, involving as it does the same issue that incited the wave of antigovernment demonstrations that swept the country last summer: the construction business and the public financing of real estate.

On Wednesday, in a move that was perceived as a striking back on the part of Mr. Erdogan’s government, five top police officials in Istanbul, who were said to be involved in the investigation, were fired, according to local press reports.

The investigation threatens to shake Turkey’s political establishment ahead of a series of elections that will determine the future of the country’s Islamist governing party, which has been in power now for more than a decade. But it also figures in the personal battle going on between Mr. Erdogan and the charismatic preacher, Fethullah Gulen.

The preacher left Turkey in 1999 for exile in the United States, where he lives on a compound in the Poconos, after he was accused of trying to establish an Islamic state. He presides over a global following in the millions, some of whom have come to fill the ranks of Turkey’s police and judiciary, including a prosecutor said to be leading the latest corruption investigation.

He and Mr. Erdogan were once uneasy partners in a political alliance that aimed to rid Turkish politics of the influence of the military, which carried out three coups in the 20th century and protected the secular elite while oppressing the pious classes.

After a series of trials, numerous generals and officers are in prison, and civilian authority over the military seems assured. But now Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen are openly feuding, raising questions about the cohesion of the Islamist governing party here.

The raids and detentions on Tuesday riveted the public, partly because the Istanbul prosecutor said to be leading the investigation, Zekeriya Oz, is believed to be sympathetic to Mr. Gulen, as are many others throughout the government. That has raised suspicions in the Erdogan camp of an antigovernment conspiracy.

Kadri Gursel, a Turkish columnist, recently wrote that the rift is “actually a divorce proceeding that is getting uglier by the day.”

Like many divorces, this one has come with its share of tawdry allegations, and the discord has also been fed by a series of leaked documents that revealed a government effort to monitor religious groups — including the Gulen movement — as far back as 2004, around the time Mr. Erdogan became prime minister.

The tension between the two camps erupted several weeks ago over what would seem to be the trivial matter of a government plan to shut down private test preparation centers that provide tutoring to students for college entrance examinations. But it highlighted suspicions within some wings of the governing Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials A.K.P., about the growing social power of the Gulen movement, which runs schools in more than 100 countries and owns many of the tutoring centers the government is trying to shut down.

The current corruption investigation increases the pressure on Mr. Erdogan. He was already facing opposition from the urban liberals and secular-minded Turks who found their voice in the summer’s antigovernment demonstrations, and he is now facing cracks within his conservative religious base, which represents half of the electorate in Turkey.

One of the targets of the corruption inquiry is Ali Agaoglu, a construction tycoon who is behind several development projects in Istanbul. The ministers’ sons, according to the newspaper Hurriyet, are being investigated on suspicion of taking bribes in bids for public projects.

Others caught up in the investigation are said to be municipal workers accused of taking bribes in return for ignoring zoning regulations. The offices of the state-run Halkbank were also raided, and an Iranian businessman, Reza Zarrab, who is married to a Turkish pop star, was detained.

In a statement posted online, Mr. Agaoglu’s company said that its “headquarters was searched with a court order,” and that “there were no elements of a crime or criminal components found at the premises.”

Late on Tuesday, Mr. Agaoglu sat inside an Istanbul police station, smoking, drinking tea and waiting to be questioned by the authorities.

Hasan Rahvali, the chief executive of Mr. Agaoglu’s construction firm, said in a telephone interview that “claims about corruption allegations are merely rumors.”

He continued: “Criteria to participate in public bids are very clear, and there’s full transparency in procedures. We are ready to cooperate if there is any information required by the legal authorities.”

While many commentators here saw the influence of the Gulen movement behind the investigation, one senior member of a Gulen-affiliated organization denied any link between the group and the investigation.

The movement’s power within Turkey stems from the positions it controls within the state, experts say, and not necessarily its ability to swing an election. Analysts and A.K.P. officials said that they believe the group’s electoral support is only in the low single digits.

That is why many analysts say Mr. Erdogan could yet keep his hold on power — he is widely believed to be planning a run for the presidency next year — without the support of the Gulen movement. But the worry inside Mr. Erdogan’s inner circle, according to officials and analysts, is that some powerful Gulen-affiliated businessmen will try to split the A.K.P. and finance a rival party.

Already, two A.K.P. lawmakers have quit the party over the dispute, including a former soccer star turned politician, Hakan Sukur, who resigned Monday and criticized the party for shutting down the Gulen-affiliated test preparation schools.

That worry has deepened as many Gulen supporters have found common cause with the largely secular and youthful protesters of last summer. Many of the concerns voiced by the protesters in the streets about the growing authoritarianism of Mr. Erdogan are shared by followers of Mr. Gulen.

To a great extent, these are the same people who supported Mr. Erdogan in his pursuit of democratic overhauls, his promise of a new constitution to replace the one imposed by the military after a coup in 1980 and his quest for European Union membership.

“We still think that their efforts to curb the militarized system, and prosecute coup perpetrators were correct, and so we supported them,” said Mustafa Yesil, the director of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, a Gulen-affiliated organization in Istanbul. “Mr. Erdogan’s attitude and approach at those times were more embracing and liberal.”

But he never followed through, Mr. Yesil and others say. “The new constitution that we all aspire to never came, the European Union membership process has been stalled, and regarding the Syrian policy, instead of a peaceful approach, it was all about burning bridges, which caused a lot of problems for Turkey.

“The approach became harsher,” Mr. Yesil added, “and therefore was unacceptable.”

Tim Arango and Sebnem Arsu
with contribution to reporting from Ceylan Yeginsu
18 December 2013