It’s a “treacherous attack” and a “dirty conspiracy,” claimed Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose image as a devout Muslim and an honest man is the key to his political success. But he didn’t deny that the voice on the recordings was his, nor that the other voice was that of his son Bilal. He explained the phone calls by saying that they were a “shameless montage” of various things that he and his son had said in other, quite innocent conversations.
The four telephone conversations allegedly took place on December 17, the same day that the Turkish police arrested the sons of three cabinet members in Erdogan’s government for corruption, bribery, and tender-rigging. This might easily have caused some alarm in the families of other cabinet members, especially since the dawn raids also uncovered large sums of money; its presence in the sons’ houses was hard to explain.
The police even found a money-counting machine in the house of Baris Guler, son of interior minister Muammer Guler. At least $4.5 million in cash was found hidden in shoe boxes in the house of Suleyman Aslan, director of the state-owned Halkbank, who was also arrested. In all 52 people, almost all of them connected in one way or another with the ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party, were arrested on that day.
In the alleged phone calls on December 17, the prime minister is asking his son Bilal to dispose of millions of euros in cash that are currently sitting in a house somewhere. Bilal is to entrust the money to several businessmen for safekeeping, and make sure that none is left in the house. In the first 24 hours after somebody posted these conversations on social media, they got 1.5 million hits.
Now, if the calls are genuine, they were probably recorded by people who knew the arrests were going to happen on that day. (It’s unlikely that anybody was tapping Bilal’s phone all the time, and it’s too hard to tap a prime minister’s phone.) So there is definitely a plot to hurt Prime Minister Erdogan—but it might be a plot whose weapon is the truth.
Here we have either a panic-stricken prime minister instructing his son to hide the evidence of massive corruption—or a “shameless montage” that strings bits of innocent conversation together to lead people to a false conclusion that slanders the prime minister. Which is it?
Well, it all sounds pretty normal to me. What son has not had occasion from time to time to tell his father that there are still 30 million euros to be removed from the house? What father does not sometimes have to warn his son not to go into details on the phone, as the line may be tapped? But some people have nasty, suspicious minds.
The phone calls are just the latest episode in a cascade of events that have shredded the carefully constructed image of Erdogan’s government, which has won three elections in 11 years with steadily increasing majorities. The trigger for these events, according to most observers, was a bitter but unexplained split between Erdogan and his erstwhile friend and political ally, the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, leads a conservative religious movement known as Hizmet (Service). It has millions of followers, and its help is seen as vital in Erdogan’s election victories. The split between Erdogan and Gulen is allegedly due to the latter’s criticism of official corruption in large construction and real estate projects—and Hizmet is said by critics to be particularly influential among the judiciary and the police.
Erdogan certainly saw the arrests on December 17 as a direct attack by Gulen on his authority. He immediately retaliated by dismissing the senior officers on the Istanbul police force who ran the financial crime, organised crime, smuggling, and anti-terrorist departments. The purge rapidly grew until some 2,000 senior police officers across the country had been fired, suspended, or moved to traffic duty.
The AK Party also brought in emergency legislation that would put senior judges and prosecutors under the direct control of the minister of justice (presumably so they could be prevented from bringing prosecutions against AK members). The European Union warned that this law would prejudice Turkey’s application for membership, but Erdogan wasn’t interested. Elections are due this year, and he is now fighting for his political life.
Erdogan has had too much power for too long and he has become arrogant and reckless, but few people could have foreseen that he would end up involved in such a massive corruption scandal. Nor is his response to the crisis reassuring: firing policemen, hobbling judges and prosecutors, and blaming it all on “dark circles” of plotters.
This is not the behaviour of an innocent man facing unjust accusations. It is the behaviour of a cornered rat.