ANKARA – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan charged Wednesday that the detention of dozens of people in a high-profile graft probe was an “ugly” operation against his government.
Several dozen police chiefs have been sacked in the wake of the dawn raids on Tuesday that led to the detention of 51 people, including the sons of three ministers and several top business leaders, sending shock waves through Turkey’s political establishment.
The operation has exposed deep fractures in Erdogan’s traditional support base, particularly a bitter feud between his government and an influential Muslim cleric who wields considerable clout in the police and the judiciary.
Political tensions are running high in Turkey ahead of a series of elections starting next year that will pose a key test for Erdogan after the antigovernment unrest in June.
Erdogan branded the graft probe an “ugly operation” against the government. “We will not allow political plotting,” he told reporters in Ankara. “Nobody has the right to darken the future of this country.”
Erdogan said police chiefs had been removed from their posts because they were using their positions for abusing power, and warned that more could follow in other cities. At least 16 police chiefs in Istanbul and 18 in Ankara had been sacked, local media reported. Those detained are suspected of numerous offenses including accepting and facilitating bribes for development projects and securing construction permits for protected areas in exchange for money, as well as gold smuggling and money laundering, according to press reports.
Among the suspects are the sons of Interior Minister Muammer Guler, Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar along with the chief executive of state-owned Halkbank, Suleyman Aslan, and construction tycoon Ali Agaoglu.
Police also seized $4.5 million in cash hidden in shoe boxes in Aslan’s home, the Dogan News Agency reported, citing judicial sources.
“We believe our ministers are innocent,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said, adding that the government was ready to dismiss them if necessary.
For his part, Erdogan pledged the government would take “necessary steps when needed.”
According to press reports, one probe centers on Azerbaijani businessman Reza Zarrab, who is suspected of bribery to disguise illegal gold sales to Iran via Halkbank.
Feud with influential Muslim cleric
Arinc branded the police operation a “psychological war” against Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) but he did not specify who was behind the “very planned” campaign.
The government has vowed to root out corruption, a chronic problem in Turkey, particularly in the booming construction industry.
But there is speculation it is linked to a very public dispute between Erdogan’s government and a former ally, the influential Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
A lawyer for Gulen denied that he was not involved in the probe. “The honorable Fethullah Gulen doesn’t have anything to do with and has no information about the investigations or the public officials leading them,” Orhan Erdemli said in a statement carried out by the Dogan News Agency.
Gulen lives in exile in the United States, but his organization wields considerable influence in several arms of Turkey’s state apparatus including the police, secret services and the judiciary and also runs a network of private schools.
The Gulen movement was a key AKP supporter, helping it to win three elections in a row since it first took office in 2002.
But government plans unveiled last month to close down a network of private schools run by Gulen’s Hizmet movement appear to have shattered the alliance.
“It would not be wrong to see the latest bribery operation … as a new phase in the Gulen-government battle,” political analyst Rusen Cakir commented.
But the AKP said it would not bow to any threats. “The AKP takes its strength neither from dark forces, nor from the other side of the ocean, nor from dirty alliances,” AKP deputy leader Salih Kapusuz was quoted as saying by the Milliyet newspaper.
Signs of discord between Gulen and Erdogan emerged in 2012 over the role of Turkey’s spy chief Hakan Fidan and relations deteriorated during the mass protests that rocked the country in June.
The demonstrations bruised Erdogan’s image, highlighting concerns about what critics say is his increasingly authoritarian policies and efforts to impose his conservative Islamic values on society.
Although Erdogan remains the most powerful figure in Turkish politics, commentators say the feud with the Gulen movement has the potential to cause splits within his own party.
Erdogan and the AKP face key tests in local polls in March, a presidential ballot in August and legislative elections in 2015.