Stormy skies over Turkey as corruption scandal spreads

A rainy day in Istanbul (Photo by Thomas Leuthard)
(Photo by Thomas Leuthard)

I’m new in Seattle, and so far, the city’s weather surprised me. First off, it doesn’t actually rain as much as I expected, though it is pretty grey.

People here love to talk about the weather, even though on these gloomy days, it can be hard to define the conditions.

The gloomy gray escapes description whilst still evoking emotion. It makes one pensive. It’s a break from extremes of either hopefulness or annoyance found in places with both blazing heat and polar chills.

In this way the political climate in Turkey is going through a gloomy Seattle weather period.  Distanced from the optimism and the great warm weather of last summer (when the streets were filled with protestors), a sense of grave realism is restructuring Turkish citizens’ thoughts about their government.

The ongoing scandal in Turkish politics has shown that change will not come over night — if ever.  The quick political turn we imagined during the Gezi Park events, when young and old gathered in the streets to protest against the government seems like a fantasty. Instead a sobriety about the complexity of Turkish politics is here to stay.

Here’s the political climate report for the past few months in Turkey:

November 21st – Cloudy with a chance of thunderstorms: Turkish Prime Minister (PM) Recep Tayyip Erdogan announces that he will change the educational testing and curriculum structure, effectively shutting down privately owned test-prep centers used by students to prepare for national exams.

The most affluent and widespread of these centers — FEM — is owned and operated by a religious group led by Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish preacher with a wide following who currently resides in Pennsylvania. In addition to these test prep centers, Gulen’s movement has a network of about 1000 schools on almost every continent, including charter schools in the U.S.

These schools, in addition to a regular curriculum also facilitate interfaith dialogue.

Many speculate Erdogan’s move to close down these centers is a show of force. Erdogan’s AK Party previously had the support of the Gulen Movement and its large following, which tends to vote as a block according to Gulen’s endorsements.

After the election of AK Party, the support of the Gulen Movement was not only crucial to sustaining an electoral majority with a high margin, but also to gaining popular support of the process of restructuring the Turkish military, which has historically countered religious forces in Turkey.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's been Turkey's Prime Minister for over a decade. (Photo from Wikipedia)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s been Turkey’s Prime Minister for over a decade. (Photo from Wikipedia)

December 17th- A day of cold winds, winter snow, black ice formation: News channels announce the beginning of a corruption case against several members of the PM’s cabinet and the owners of a number of large construction companies. Three ministers’ sons are also taken into custody.

Important to note here that ever since the AK Party resumed power, Istanbul has been transformed by large scale construction projects. The Gezi Park protests actually started as a reaction to one of the projects, which would have transformed the park into a shopping mall.

The corruption claims are about the sons of ministers facilitating government contracts for preferred construction companies. It appears as though the network illegally transferred public property to private interest holders to allow these urban development projects to go forward.

Among the arrested is Ali Agaoglu, a leading Istanbul-based construction tycoon with ties to the government. Many speculate that his political affiliations have enabled him to build in areas otherwise not open for construction.

December 20th – Heavy rain with thunderstorm and lightening: Fethullah Gulen releases an online video to his followers in Turkey (He does this often as he currently resides in the Pennsylvania).

In the video, the preacher appears unusually charged, wishing those who may have stolen from the government to be punished. He wishes ill on unnamed people, invoking what is called a beddua. It literally translates as a “bad prayer,” wishing ill fortune on someone.

“Those who wish and talk ill about others, let God cover their houses in fire, let God demolish their union.”

It didn’t take long for remixed versions of the video message to pop up on Youtube:

December 25th – Cloudy with a chance of ministerial resignations: The ministers’ whose sons are in custody resign from their posts. The Minister of Environment, Zafer Caglayan, accuses Erdogan of complicity in the scandal and urges him to step down. It is one of the first public criticisms of the PM by a party member.

Erdogan blames foreign forces to be responsible of what is going in Turkey. In various public speeches, he expresses his conviction that the corruption scandal is merely a part of an international conspiracy, one that wants to leave Turkey economically and politically weak.

There is a long tradition of Erdogan (and other Turkish politicians) defaulting to conspiracy rhetoric in times of crises.

What is novel in the current case is the number of foreign actors Erdogan claims are responsible. In one of these speeches he couples Israel, the U.S. and even the German airline company Lufthansa (due to rapid expansion of Istanbul as a major transfer hub) as conspiring together against Turkey and its recent success.

He also blames the Gulen movement, which he likens to a criminal organization. He claims that they created a deep state operating parallel to the Turkish government.

December 26th  Foggy: Turkish PM Erdogan announces a new cabinet. Speculation abounds that the new list of people are Erdogan confidants. The most controversial is the replacement for the Minister of Interior. PM Erdogan selects an advisor who’s not actually a member of parliament, but known to be a close confident for many years, to this post.

December 27 – Heavy rain: A second set of corruption cases is announced. In the new list is another group of government-affiliated construction company owners. Speculation abounds that Erdogan’s son Bilal is on the list, and that members of the police force have refused to obey the orders of the prosecution to take those under suspicion into custody.

January 7th – The polar vortex takes over parts of United States. In Turkey it is a day of heavy showers. The main prosecutor overseeing the corruption cases is reassigned to a new district by the new Minister of Interior.

At the same time, 1700 members of the police force in the cities of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara are also reassigned to new positions in different cities. Speculation is that the government fears Gulen movement followers have infiltrated the ranks of the police force.

January 10th – Extratropical Cyclone: Debate begins about restructuring the High Council on Judges and Prosecutors, an independent legislative body formed in 2010 to oversee cases of wrongdoing by prosecuters and judges.

Previously enthusiastic about this body, the AK Party government suddenly proposes that the organization should be restructured and Ministry of Justice have say on the proceedings and cases, stripping the organization of its autonomy. After the meetings about changing the structure of the organization, parliamentarians from the opposition party and ruling party get into a fistfight:

January 13th – Heavy rain of tapes, cassettes: What many in the Turkish press name “Cassette Wars” begin. Illegal recordings of Fethullah Gulen and PM Erdogan’s son Bilal are leaked to the press. 

January 16th – Gloomy and gray: More prosecutors are forced out of their positions. The minister of justice announces that the son of PM Erdogan was never a suspect. Erdogan makes a speech where he claims that if any of his children were to be involved in anything illegal he would denounce them.

January 17th – Shallow fog: Many speculate that the real impact of the scandal will be on the upcoming local elections at the end of March. The mayoral candidate from the opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party) Mustafa Sarigul, finds out that his personal assets have been frozen by a major public bank in Turkey due to an open debt from 1998. Sarigul claims this is a political plot against him.

January 22nd – Cloudy: Erdogan meets with members of EU summit and the president of European Commision in hopes of fixing the Turkish economy. The value of the Turkish lira had plunged ever since the corruption scandal started. The exchange rates have risen and the currency has lost almost 15 percent.of its value. The scandal has caused hesitation by foreign investors to the country.

As Erdogan outlines the international and national conspiracies he believes are operating against him, he receives a strong rebuke from EU about the recent attempts to reduce the autonomy of the High Council and Judges and Prosecutors.

January 23rd – Partly Cloudy: Erdogan returns to Turkey and announces that the government will freeze the process and talks about restructuring the High Council on Judges and Prosecutors.

January 28th – Foggy- Turkish Central Bank announces a set of new economic policies such as raising the interest rates in attempt to stop the fluctuations of the currency and to halt the increase in the raising inflation rates.

A protester throws a rock at police in Istanbul's Taksim Square during protests last summer over the development of Gezi Park. (Photo by Christan Leonard)
A protester throws a rock at police in Istanbul’s Taksim Square during protests last summer over the development of Gezi Park. (Photo by Christan Leonard)

Forecast for Upcoming Days: 

The imminent gray is harder to think about. What makes the current political climate so gloomy is the realization that this situation may be much more than a set of bad weather days.

Instead, the political structures may inherently be flawed and corruption may be a permanent part of that structure.

Another reason for the gloominess is Prime Minister Erdogan’s apparent attempts to remove all checks to his power. But any reaction must be coupled with cynicism towards any new political figure or structure that might replace him.

A third and final reason for the gloominess is the impact of such scandals, now ubiquitous in Turkish political history, on everyday life. The plummeting rate of the Turkish currency against the American dollar is a sign that the recent period of economic stability may have been just a brief break in the clouds.

Much like the weather in Seattle, the gray in Turkey’s political climate is here to stay, but without any prospect of a pleasant summer to come.