Crowds cheering Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (not pictured) during a local election campaign in Nigde yesterday. Local elections will be held in Turkey on March 30, 2014.
ISTANBUL: With local polls imminent, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can still draw tens of thousands to rallies on the campaign trail, but a mounting corruption scandal is doing unprecedented damage to his image.
Voice recordings published online last week — allegedly of Erdogan and his son discussing how to hide large amounts of money — have sparked mass protests and creating rifts within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Analysts say the tapes have the potential to hurt the prime minister at local polls on March 30, a key test of Erdogan’s popularity ahead of a presidential election in August and parliamentary elections next year.
“Even if their authenticity is still challenged, those tapes have definitively put the whole crisis in a different perspective by placing Erdogan personally in the middle of the storm,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. “They will have a major impact on the prime minister’s popularity,” he said. If the party’s vote share drops too far, say observers, he may start losing critical support within his own camp.
“Centre-right Islamists within the party are very angry at the prime minister,” said Mehmet Akif Okur, associate professor at the Ankara-based Gazi University.
“If the AKP wins less than 40 percent, we could see mass resignations,” he said.
Eight lawmakers including a former culture minister have already resigned from the party, lowering the number of AKP seats in parliament to 318 out of 550.
“The Erdogan government has lost its legitimacy completely in the wake of the leaks,” said Dani Rodrik, professor of social sciences at the US-based Institute for Advanced Study.
“It is not just about the magnitude of the corruption, which still needs to be established by impartial courts, but also the manner in which he has responded: by further polarising the nation and inciting social conflict.”
The leaked tapes, which Erdogan insists are fake, surfaced just as the premier appeared to be regaining control over a far-reaching corruption probe launched in December against some of his key allies.
Erdogan characterised the probe as a direct attack by a former ally, the US-exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose associates hold key positions in the police and the judiciary.
The combative premier responded ferociously, sacking hundreds of police and prosecutors and pushing through draconian laws tightening control over the judiciary and the Internet.
But the leaked tapes are the first time that Erdogan, who turned 60 last week, has been directly implicated.
The scandal has played out like a soap opera across the country, with Turks glued to Twitter in anticipation of new revelations.
In the first and most spectacular recording, a voice purporting to be that of Erdogan is heard telling his son Bilal to dispose of large sums of cash stashed in several houses.AFP