Another test for Erdogan

The political and social fissures in Turkey are varied and deep. There is tension between civilian leaders and the military; secularists and supporters of a more Islamic-oriented society; the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who heads an Islamic party, and the military; and between Islamic groups themselves.

Today, the biggest challenge to Erdogan appears to emanate from another Islamic leader, Fethullah Gulen, a cleric exiled to the United States. A burgeoning corruption scandal, the investigation of which Gulen is alleged to have masterminded, now threatens Erdogan’s government.

Since becoming prime minister in 2002, Erdogan has faced several challenges to his rule and, in each case, has prevailed:

• Shortly after taking office, he faced down the military after several top officers allegedly plotted a coup.

• Sporadically, secularists have argued that specific government measures undermine the secular authority that is the basis of modern Turkey.

• Last year, controversial economic development plans triggered mass street protests that exposed a new vulnerability.

Late last year, a new scandal emerged that threatens the prime minister in ways that the others did not. On Dec. 17, a series of raids resulted in the detention of at least 50 people on charges of corruption, bribery, money laundering and related offenses.

Among the detained were some of the country’s top businessmen, the sons of three Cabinet members, the mayor of one of Istanbul’s biggest districts, the general manager of Turkey’s second-biggest state bank, Halkbank, and a number of civil servants. In one widely played video, $4.5 million in cash is taken from the house of the bank manager. All the accused are connected to the current government.

According to public prosecutors, the move was the culmination of three separate probes, one of which took place over 14 months. More significantly, the arrests took the government by surprise. The three Cabinet ministers have resigned, and Erdogan has been forced to reshuffle his entire Cabinet as a result.

While saying he would not tolerate corruption, Erdogan responded to the arrests by firing or reassigning 70 of the police officers involved in the investigation, including the head of the Ankara police who oversaw the detentions.

One Turkish newspaper reported that 550 police officers, including senior officials, were dismissed by the interior minister, who has since stepped down himself. According to more recent AFP reports, some 350 police officers in Ankara, including chiefs of the financial and organized-crime units, were sacked on Tuesday and 16 provincial chiefs on Wednesday. Erdogan branded the investigation a “dirty plot” against his government.

In other words, it looks like the government is going after the investigators instead of the alleged lawbreakers.

The prime minister has called the scandal an “attempted assassination” and a “judicial coup” that targets “the future, the stability” of Turkey. He blames Gulen, exiled since 1999. Gulen has at least 1 million followers, many of them senior members of the police and judiciary, and whose Hizmet (“Service”) movement runs schools and charities in Turkey and elsewhere in the world. Gulen denies any involvement in the investigation.

The split between Erdogan and Gulen, ostensible allies, has been triggered by government efforts to rein in Gulen’s followers scattered throughout the bureaucracy as well as by reports that the government would shut down the exam prep schools that provide Hizmet with significant sources of revenue and recruits.

Erdogan is also playing the Turkish nationalist card. In addition to denouncing “certain organizations acting under the guise of religion” to try to form a “state within a state,” he has asserted that there are “international dimensions” — outsiders who want to “halt our fast growth.”

The attempt to blame outsiders looks desperate for a political leader who has been in government for 11 years and won three straight elections. Turkey’s economy has tripled in size under Erdogan’s administration, although growth slowed significantly last year. But the recent problems have rattled investors.

Perhaps most important, the corruption charges go to the heart of one of the pillars of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Erdogan fronts: its clean image. The shakeups that followed the December arrests look like a government that is trying to cover something up.

The next test for the government will be local elections in March. That ballot will be a vote of confidence. Erdogan is thought to have eyes on the country’s presidency, a position that will be contested in direct elections for the first time later this year. A clean break with this burgeoning scandal will be crucial to his prospects.

There are also reports that the government is also reviewing some of the trials of military officers that occurred earlier in Erdogan’s tenure. That could signal the beginning of an alliance between the prime minister and the armed forces.

While secret cabals are always problems for governments, focusing on those groups and avoiding the larger question of systemic corruption is always a poor choice. The loyalty of all officials should be to the government. The loyalty of the government should be to justice and the rule of law.