Erdogan battles political firestorm ahead of key polls

AFP , Thursday 19 Dec 2013

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walks near his office in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. (AP Photo)

Istanbul's top police chief said Thursday he had been sacked, after dozens of the Turkish prime minister's closest allies were held in a sweeping corruption probe that threatens to weaken his grip on power ahead of key elections.

Huseyin Capkin, who had been in the job since June 2009, was the latest of 30 senior police officers to be dismissed in Istanbul and Ankara for "abusing their power". Erdogan has warned that more sackings could follow.

At least 51 people including the sons of three ministers and several top business leaders were detained in a series of dawn raids on Tuesday, in the biggest investigation into official corruption since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took office in 2002.

The detentions have set off a political firestorm in Turkey and exposed bitter fault lines in Erdogan's traditional power base, particularly a festering row with a powerful Muslim cleric.

Erdogan has described the investigation as a "dirty operation" to smear his Islamic-leaning government ahead of the polls and undermine Turkey's ambitions to become a major political and economic power.

He also accused those behind the raids of acting like a "state within a state," a possible reference to the organisation headed by influential Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has supporters in the police and the judiciary.

As the political turmoil intensified on Thursday, the Turkish lira fell to a three-month low and stocks sank over three percent.

The Istanbul stock market dropped 3.2 percent to 69,135.38 while the lira weakened against the US dollar to 2.071, driven partly by US moves to wind back a vast stimulus programme.

Emre Uslu, a columnist for the Zaman daily, said the affair had "tarnished the government's image in the eyes of the voters".

"From now on, no conservative will be able to defend this party by claiming that it has put an end to corruption," he wrote in Zaman, which is owned by Gulen.

Those detained in the raids in Istanbul and Ankara are suspected of numerous offences 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.

Nine people were released Wednesday, according to Turkish media, but the rest remain in custody.

The operation has exposed deep fractures in Erdogan's traditional support base, particularly a dispute between the government and Gulen.

The Gulen movement was a key supporter of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), helping it to win three elections in a row since 2002.

But government plans unveiled last month to close down a network of private schools run by Gulen's Hizmet (Service) movement appear to have shattered the alliance.

The timing of the scandal could not be worse for Erdogan, coming just days after he launched the AKP's campaign for municipal elections in March.

Those elections will be a key test for the Turkish strongman, who has set his sights on becoming president if a new constitution gives the post sweeping US-style executive powers.

A presidential election is due to be held in August, followed by legislative elections in 2015.

Sedat Ergin, columnist for the Hurriyet daily, said the credibility of Erdogan's government was on the line after the mass protests in June against what critics say is his increasingly authoritarian rule and moves to impose conservative Islamic values on society.

"The government's stance on corruption does not inspire confidence because in the past, it tended to cover up investigations that targeted itself," Ergin wrote.

Opposition parties have called on the government to resign and denounced the sacking of police chiefs as an effort to "shut down" the investigation.

Sources close to the government say Erdogan will use a long-expected cabinet reshuffle to remove those affected by the scandal.

The suspects include 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 on Wednesday seized $4.5 million in cash hidden in shoe boxes in Aslan's home, the private Dogan News Agency reported, citing judicial sources.

A lawyer for Gulen, who has lived in exile in the United States since 1999 to escape charges of plotting against the secular state, denied he was involved in the probe.

Although he will not be running in the elections, his organisation wields considerable influence in several arms of Turkey's state apparatus including the police, secret services and the judiciary.

"The (Gulen) movement has made its presence felt, and has decided to protect its interests," said analyst Rusen Cakir.

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