Hubris, Corruption and Democracy in Turkey: Erdogan’s Fall (updated*)
Turkish PM Erdogan, like a hero in ancient Greek drama whose arrogance deriving from power caused him to lose touch with political and social reality and disturb the “gods” committing hubris, overestimating his own strength and blinded by his arrogance and self-righteousness, is facing inevitable fall. His latest panicky moves e.g. to fire or reshuffle 70 police chiefs in connection with the ongoing corruption investigation and forbid journalist access to police stations seem foolish and belie common sense, putting the Turkish people before a stark dilemma: (survival of) Erdogan or Turkish Democracy? As in ancient Greek drama, Erdogan’s hubris will be followed by his fall and the nemesis (punishment) of the (internal and external) “gods” his arrogant behavior disturbed.
Erdogan knows in his guts he is already lying on his deathbed and he is fighting desperately for his political life, even if he sacrifices Turkish democracy in the process. That is why his latest moves are more like desperate actions of a drowning (or guilty) person trying to stay afloat at any cost, alluding to external and internal powers aiming to bring down his government’s economic and geopolitical achievements. Erdogan will not survive, as his arrogance and hubris unleashed too many diverse powerful forces (modern “gods”) and brought to surface various illegal and double-game activities within and outside Turkey that ensure his end is imminent.
Until early December, Erdogan was considered one of the most successful and powerful modern politicians, an “untouchable” political hero. The Turkish economy has grown impressively under his rule with GDP doubling during his decade-old rule, and his global geopolitical ambitions for a secular Muslim Turkey viewed as a model of democratic stability and a power broker in the broader unstable region, from Egypt and northern Africa, to Syria and Iran, earned him tremendous credibility and respect with global powers. The US effectively outsourced its Syria policy to Erdogan. Recent developments, however, reveal that Erdogan’s government may have secretly and illegally aided both sides in the Syrian conflict and may have played a double role vis-à-vis Iran. Earlier this year, Erdogan’s power was solidified internally vis-à-vis the military and other opposing internal secular forces when the judiciary indicted ex armed forces chief Gen. Basbug and 250 prominent others for conspiracy to overthrow his government. It was an impressive legal case and a lesson for the Turkish military, which had viewed itself as guarantor of the secular Turkish constitution and staged three coups since 1960, to abstain from intervening in future political affairs, such as the present internal state crisis. It was an impressive show of power by Erdogan, it seemed.
Or was it? Erdogan’s government claimed at the time it had little to do with the judiciary’s tough prosecution and sentencing in the Ergenekon case trials, even though some western powers and internal groups accused it of manipulating the judiciary. Recent developments confirm that the Turkish judiciary has had its own mind. It has been determined, tough, and has replaced the military in bringing checks and balances to Turkish democracy. What had not initially received due attention, is that the same tough prosecutors, Zekeriya Oz and Muammer Akkas, who, like an angel saved Erdogan’s AKP government from military intervention and sentenced the generals to life imprisonment, are now heading the corruption investigations against Erdogan’s AKP government. Erdogan knew he could not credibly challenge these prosecutors and that he was in deep trouble, hence the controversial moves to fire or reshuffle the police chiefs, control media access to police buildings, appointing additional prosecutors to take over control of the investigation process and making last-minute changes to the law requiring prosecutors to report all investigations to their political supervisors. Ironically, that would have required that investigators report to the interior minister (or to Erdogan) that his son and indirectly himself were under investigation for corruption, a fatal blow to judicial independence. That decision was later deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors and was annulled by the Council of State (Turkey’s administrative court). But Erdogan’s government keeps blocking the investigations, bringing the judiciary process to a standstill.
In a second phase of the corruption investigation lead by prosecutor Akkas, Mr. Erdogan’s own son, Bilal Erdogan, was among the list of additional suspects ordered to be brought into custody by the Istanbul prosecutor’s office, allegedly having profited from shady property deals. However, the new Istanbul police chief (freshly appointed by Mr. Erdogan to try to contain the investigation) who has been ordered by prosecutor Akkas to detain the new suspects has refused to execute the order. Prosecutor Akkas was soon removed from the case stating publically that Mr. Erdogan’s government obstructed the investigation. An interesting power struggle seems under way testing the very essence of judicial independence, rule of law and balance of powers in Turkey. The Istanbul chief prosecutor’s office allegedly launched an investigation into public and police officers who refused to carry judiciary orders, including the Istanbul Governor and the chief of the financial crimes unit. Turkey’s Parliament speaker, an ex AKP justice minister, warned that article 138 of the constitution on the independence of courts is being violated. President Abdullah Gul has called for respect of the independence of the judiciary and urged the government to confront claims regarding corruption as first priority. As Erdogan, blinded by hubris and fear of allegations of own involvement, resists and interferes with the judicial process to protect his own, democratic forces will likely intensify bringing closer his downfall.
The Turkish Association of Journalists already filed a lawsuit seeking annulment of the directive barring journalists from entering police buildings. An international journalists group put Erdogan on their suppression-of-the-press leaders list. His own AKP Izmir party deputy Mr. Gunay criticized the PM for his out-of-touch rhetoric on the corruption scandal: “He didn’t say anything to dispel the doubts raised about corruption.” It is known that as Mayor of Istanbul Erdogan interfered with justice to protect his 19-year-old son who killed a famous singer in reckless driving. So how he might be independent, people wonder, if his own son and the sons of his ministers are prime suspects in the corruption investigation? He recently stated “if you have evidence of any wrong doing, just give it to us and we will take care of it,” criticizing prosecutors for not informing the government about the inquiry and threatened to teach a lesson to prosecutor Akkas. But now, despite his immensely grown power, the forces stacked against him might prove even more powerful as Erdogan continues to hit his head against the wall of judiciary independence, rule of law and setting in motion other powerful opposing forces.
Corruption is not new in Turkey’s construction and energy industries. A culture of “hums” (one-fifth) made it common for officials to expect an illegal 20% cut in public deals, from ministries to municipalities. Halkbank served as a conduit for money transfers with Iran exceeding $120 billion. Corrupt arrangements in the construction of public housing led to the collapsing infrastructure during the 1999 earthquakes that gave rise to anti-establishment sentiment that brought Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AKP) party to power in 2002, amid promises of combating corruption. AK stands for pure, like milk. That is why the corruption issue is so sensitive for the AKP party, as it endangers its very identity. When that identity is damaged, the party loses its moral credibility.
Construction development has boomed during Erdogan’s decade-old rule. Massive privatizations of government assets exceeding $50 billion were accompanied by allegations of corruption in government licenses, bids, tenders and land sales. Favored businessmen were given no-bid government contracts and state-owned banks offered them preferential loans. A new office in charge of land sales for the creation of public housing was put directly under the prime minister. Affiliated construction businessmen were sold huge plots of land, even for projects unrelated to public housing. Torunlar GYO, founded by Erdogan’s childhood friend Aziz Torun, became one of the wealthiest real estate partnerships. Minister of Environment and Urban Development Erdokan Bayraktar, who was forced by Erdogan to resign, accused the PM publically of personally approving many of the development projects under corruption investigation, giving added credibility to the corruption claims. The violent containment of the Gezi Park protests against demolition of a symbolic Istanbul park for commercial development earlier this summer still reminds of an unholy alliance between the AKP and big construction business interests.
Behind the judiciary’s investigation there might indeed be forces loyal to Mr Gulen, a powerful Islamic cleric who controls an informal religious, education and business network that infiltrated powerful Turkish institutions, such as the judiciary, police, central intelligence, even the AKP party itself. Whether Zekeriya Oz and Muammar Akkas are altogether independently-minded prosecutors or their staff may be influenced by the Gulen movement, it is certain that Mr Erdogan and his AKP government are in deep trouble. For one, they unduly antagonized the powerful Gulen movement that now turned against them fighting for its own life. Although the Gulen movement has been an invaluable ally for the AKP party in a mutually beneficial relationship during AKP’s decade-old rule sharing the benefits of a booming domestic economy, in helping Turkish businesses when doing business abroad with Gulen’s global network connections and during the recent showdown with the military, Erdogan’s arrogance and control-all tendency led him to antagonize his natural allies. Besides some foreign policy disagreement (with the Gulenists being more pro-Western), ongoing efforts by the AKP to restrain Gulenist influence (in conspiracy discussions with the military as early as 2004) culminating with AKP’s decision last November to close down Gulenist private preparatory schools, turned hubris to nemesis.
Another powerful “god” that Erdogan’s arrogance may have disturbed is violating US and EU sanctions against Iran. Two of the main current arrests are related. 29-year old Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, accused of bribing the Economy Minister and three ministerial sons spreading more than $65 million in bribes, is suspected of coordinating illegal money-laundering and gold-smuggling transactions with Iran worth over $120 billion. Some of the bribes are directly linked to financing AKP party surveys. The CEO of state-run Halkbank, Suleyman Aslan, with $4.5 million found in shoeboxes in his house, is also under arrest in suspicion of money laundering and gold trading with Iran. The illegal gas-for-gold exchange scheme worked as follows: Turkey bought huge amounts of oil and natural gas from Iran and deposited the payments in a special account in liras for Iran in Halkbank. Then the bank converted the amount to an equivalent amount of gold bars, which were transferred in armored vehicles and delivered at the border to Iranian officials. Some loads were sent by airplane to Qatar, UAE and Russia. Halkbank may also have acted similarly on behalf of other countries buying oil from Iran, such as India (also paying in gold). Gold trading from Turkey to Iran increased significantly after March 2012, when SWIFT transactions with Iran were discontinued.
Zarrab stated that he has been working for Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani, who has made $ billions assisting the Iranian government bypass the international sanctions imposed against it. Zanjani is blacklisted by the EU and US, although he denies the connection with Zarrab. However, Zanjani has recently been arrested on financial crime charges by the Iranian government itself, just a day after President Rouhani asked the government to fight financial corruption and “privileged figures” who took advantage of economic sanctions. A series of sms messages sent by Zarrab to the Economy Minister involving bribes and to Zanjani for helping release a confiscated airplane gold cargo are part of the evidence. Likely the US National Security Agency is also aware of these activities, hence the near rift between Erdogan and the US Ambassador and the talk about foreign circles intervention in the corruption investigation. “No one should jeopardize US-Turkey relations with such ill-intended slanders” a strict US Embassy statement warned. In the past, 47 US Congressmen prompted by the Israeli AIPAC lobby in the US had signed a letter calling for sanctions against the bank. Davis Cohen, who had a meeting with Halkbank officials warning over its dealings with Iran in 2009 as a US Treasury intelligence agent (Wikileaks), was recently visiting Turkey again as US undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence responsible for monitoring the sanctions against Iran to discuss easing of the gold trade after last month’s Geneva agreement following Iran’s concessions. Erdogan went as far as accusing business groups like the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association for allegedly acting with international conspirators, implying mainly the US and Israel. He also attacked the media for spreading anti-Turkish propaganda.
It is likely that Erdogan is guilty of involvement in various inappropriate or illegal activities that he is desperately trying to cover up. These include personally ordering the approval of illegal development projects under investigation and illegal activities by his own son, his ministers and their sons. Moreover, his administration has been illegally sending arms to Al-Qaida groups in Syria, with the latest incident being blocking the search of a truck (suspected of carrying arms to Syria) by another public prosecutor. The truck, accompanied by National Intelligence Agency (MIT) security, was treated as a state secret and the prosecutors search was illegally blocked under directions from the interior ministry, the Hatay governor and the prime ministry. At the same time Erdogan’s government orchestrated the bypassing of UN sanctions against Iran in illegal gas-for-gold transactions, helping Iran save over $15 billion, part of which was channeled in weapons to Assad’s regime, hypocritically playing on both sides of the power struggle in Syria. Thus, if the investigations go through and allegations are proven, he will be politically dead, both internally and with Western allies. He has therefore resolved to cover up at any cost, even if Turkish democracy or future EU prospects are sacrificed. Erdogan is so desperate to cover up his illegal internal and international activities and save his political skin that he ordered the justice ministry to consider amendments for the re-trial of hundreds of military officers sentenced in the Ergenekon trials, gambling that if bias in evidence is shown there that it may help him get away with his own improprieties. His hubris and irrational state of mind prevents him from seeing that even if that were the case, he would still be liable for his government and AKP party’s going along and even taking credit in past elections for incriminating and curbing the military even though he may have known at the time that they might have been framed as he now claims. That makes him no less guilty and criminally accountable for condoning, covering up and even facilitating and encouraging the actions of those judges he now claims acted inappropriately — at the time these judges were called heroes by Erdogan and his supporters. Not to mention that potential re-trial would not only kill the credibility and independence of the judiciary and irreparably damage the respect for the rule of law in the public’s memory, but would itself invite future meddling of the military in state affairs.
Erdogan’s arrogance and blindness seem limitless. As a consequence, Pandora’s box has been opened and no matter what he does from now on, the powerful and conflicting forces it has unleashed, both internally and across borders, cannot be contained. With his desperate efforts to protect his corrupt associates, Erdogan is endangering political, social and economic stability within Turkey, turning the Turkish state into a dysfunctional, chaotic palestra, as well as putting at risk sensitive international relations with the US and EU over its double-faced Iran and Syria dealings. Turkish democracy is currently facing its gravest test since its inception.
The signs of hubris and the coming nemesis and Erdogan’s fall seem all the more inevitable.
*Updated and extended on 5 January 2014.