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Erdogan expected to bounce back from corruption probe blow

Turkish prime minister has been hurt by arrests of people close to him – and his government's response – but his presidential prospects are still strong
The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is under pressure from a corruption investigation that has led to the detention of people close to him.  Muammer Tan / Anadolu Agency / EPA
The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is under pressure from a corruption investigation that has led to the detention of people close to him. Muammer Tan / Anadolu Agency / EPA

Eight people were formally arrested yesterday in a corruption investigation that is seen as a confrontation between Turkey’s powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and followers of his former ally.

The investigation has ensnared dozens of businesspeople and senior bureaucrats close to Mr Erdogan, but experts say that with crucial elections due next year, he is likely to hit back strongly.

Since Tuesday, more than 50 people have been detained by police for questioning as part of three separate investigations into bribery and fraud regarding construction tenders and money laundering.

Those detained include the sons of three government ministers, a mayor in Istanbul and the head of a state-run bank.

The arrests came as 14 police officials were reassigned by more senior authorities in Ankara, prompting the country’s opposition to claim that Mr Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were trying to thwart the investigations.

More than two dozen police officers had already been removed from their posts since the inquiry was launched on Tuesday, including the Istanbul police chief, Huseyin Capkin.

Yesterday, the Turkish construction tycoon Ali Agaoglu was released from jail, but still faces trial over allegations of bribing officials. Mr Agaoglu is considered close to the government, having won major contracts from the state housing administration in the past. He also comes from the same north-eastern region as Mr Erdogan’s family.

The probe was launched following Mr Erdogan’s public falling out with the influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers are powerful within Turkey’s police, judiciary and local media.

Mr Gulen’s followers – known as the Gulen movement – had collaborated with Mr Erdogan to subdue Turkey’s powerful military through a series of court cases, but public disagreements began to emerge about three years ago.

Central to the dispute was Mr Erdogan keeping members of the Gulen movement out of the upper echelons of government and bureaucracy, blocked from key business contracts, and his pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy, according to several members of the movement. The conflict boiled over in November when Mr Erdogan moved to close a number of private study halls, known as dersanes, that play a role in funding the movement.

“The dersanes attack by the AKP was designed to weaken the Gulen movement by hitting where it could, money. Do not underestimate how angry the Gulen followers are with the government for this,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

The investigation could damage Mr Erdogan more than mass anti-government protests that rocked Turkey this past summer.

But with municipal and presidential elections only a few months away, the combative Mr Erdogan is not expected to go quietly.

Analysts agreed that the investigation – and the quick decision to reassign police officials, could hurt Mr Erdogan in at least the municipal elections.

The allegations “are extremely significant”, said Ilhan Tanir, a Washington-based Turkey analyst. “We have to wait more to see whether these allegations will be proved in a court of law. However, Erdogan is already wounded.”

Blocked by his party’s rules from seeking a third consecutive term as prime minister Mr Erdogan is expected to run for president in a bid to retain power.

While the corruption probe is viewed by many in Turkey as an attempt to weaken Mr Erdogan, few doubt he will win the election.

Mr Barkey said “it all depends on who they run against him and I see no one who has his national appeal”.

However, Mr Erdogan “is likely to pay a price” in municipal elections, Mr Barkey said. “He may lose Ankara and Istanbul ... His party’s vote share will decline.”

jvela@thenational.ae

Updated: December 20, 2013 04:00 AM

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