A Turkish telenovela could not have had a better script: last Tuesday morning, police forces completed an early morning raid detaining some of the country’s top political, social, and business elite: An Iranian-Azeri businessmen, married to a famous pop-star; three government ministers’ sons; the CEO of a government bank; a multi-millionaire construction tycoon; and a local mayor of Istanbul’s Fatih district, a member of the ruling government. Within hours of the arrest, it was clear that this would be one of the greatest scandals in Turkish history, a graft probe that connected the lives of the rich and famous with the country’s top politicians.
|Reza Zarrab (left) with Turkish Minister Suat Kılıç (right)|
Since news broke almost a week ago, we have learned that the raid was related to three different probes, and two of the big names, each belonging to a different probe, have been released awaiting trial: the construction mogul, Ali Agaoglu, and the mayor of Fatih municipality, Mustafa Demir. While these two probes are quite telling on their own accord, the graft probe that has shaken the Turkish political world to the core is related to the arrest of Reza Zarrab, the Iranian-Azeri businessman (married to the famous singer Ebru Gündes), who is accused of paying off millions of dollars to high-ranking personalities, such as, two government ministers’ sons, and the CEO of the state ran bank, Halkbank. Further, it is alleged that Egemen Bağış, the Turkish Minister of EU Affairs, was central in acquiring Turkish citizenship for Zarrab, and rumored that the Economic Minister, Zafer Cağlayan, whose son was arrested, received a $350,000 watch as a present from Zarrab.
During the last week, Turkey's once believed-invincible Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been working hard to close the pandora’s box that has been opened: following the arrests, he sacked tens of high-ranking police officers involved in the trial, and is placing great pressures on the judicial system. Similar to his reaction during the Gezi Park protests, the Prime Minister, is trying to convince all that this is the work of secret forces; some pro-government newspaper outlets have placed blame on the US, while others on the likely candidate, Israel (surely it must be the Jews behind this). However, the gravity of this embarrassment is not the fact that his government is condoning rampant corruption, rather, more and more, it seems like it is an integral part of it.
|Reza Zarrab in background steps away from Turkish Minister|
Egemen Bağış (right)
Just days ago, numerous photos have hit the press showing Reza Zarrab at official state events and ceremonies, leading some to cynically suggest that Zarrab should be declared as an honorary member of the government. While there is no photo of him with the Prime Minister, he appears twice with the PM’s wife, Emine Erdoğan, together with Suat Kılıç, the up-and-coming favorite Minister of Erdoğan, in a photo with the previously mentioned Minister, Egemen Bagis, and with the wife of the Interior Minister, Muammer Güler, whose son was one of the ones arrested. In other words, from the photos it is apparent that Reza Zarrab had very close relations with many in the high-echelons of the governing AK party; further, his presence at official openings begs the question whether or not he or his wife, Gündeş, contributed illegal monies to public institutions.
Zarrab’s close relations is damning to the AK Party’s image that was elected as an anti-corruption party. During their eleven years in power, rumors of corruption have come-and-gone, and with over four-hundred billion dollars of foreign investment energizing Turkey’s economy, and the subsequent over-the-top construction boom, corruption seems almost unavoidable (something that is central to the two previous probes that were mentioned at the beginning of the article). However, most damaging to the party, is the fact that Erdoğan has decided to challenge the allegations head-on, risking a head-on collision with the Turkish electorate, which despite all his rallying, must simply be tired of the endless controversy; yes, some Turkish citizens might have not been the most sympathetic to the Gezi Park protests, but this too took a toll on them. Now, if Erdogan does not quickly take control (with no signs of this in the future), he is at risk of being left alone, with a much less (even if consolidated) numbered of die-hard supporters.
If this was not enough, with the Gülen Movement accused as being the perpetrators, uncovering of this scandal, it is hard to imagine that the party will be able to make up the votes lost due to the parting of this once staunch ally. Furthermore, even if it is too early to predict how this scandal will play out, it perhaps is time to ask how much longer members of Erdoğan’s party will put up with this circus; at what point will respectable members of his cabinet jump ship. Such as, Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who, despite criticism of his foreign policy, remains a serious politician that could lead a conservative agenda in Turkey. Lastly, it seems more likely than ever that Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, also will remain unscathed from these scandals, and this could be an opportunity to strengthen his hold over Turkish politics.
In the first article of my series on the upcoming Turkish local elections, I ended by saying that this season will be interesting to say the least, no one could have predicted such a major fallout. What is clear is that if there was any chance for opposition parties to make gains against the AK Party, the time is now. Also, if Erdoğan weathers this storm, he certainly he will hold up his reputation as being the political genius, as we all know him as; but the question remains, at what price.
Whatever comes out of this political scandal, it is clear that the biggest loser from this graft probe will not be one politician or another, truly, it is the Turkish state's standing among its citizens, and in the world. They say in Turkish, yazık (it's a pity); simply put, this probe cannot be described in any other way.