ISTANBUL—It was Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 60th birthday this week, but the Turkish Prime Minister could be forgiven for not being in the mood for celebrations.
Already under fire for more than two months because of corruption allegations against his government, Erdogan is now facing calls for his resignation after recordings emerged of alleged phone conversations between him and his son Bilal that purport to show he was personally involved in hiding large sums of money from prosecutors.
Roughly four weeks before key elections on March 30, the Prime Minister is fighting for his reputation as an honest man who worked himself up from humble beginnings in a rough Istanbul neighbourhood to the highest echelons of power as the most successful Turkish leader in half a century.
Some observers predict Erdogan will be unable to undo the damage done by the corruption affair. “The era of Tayyip Erdogan is about to end,” columnist Cengiz Candar wrote in the Radikal newspaper on the Prime Minister’s birthday on Feb 26th. “What we don’t know is when and how he will leave.”
Erdogan denounced the recordings as fake. “We are facing a very serious attack,” he told an election rally in the southwestern city on Burdur on Thursday. “This attack is not only directed against me and my family, but against the Turkish Republic.”
In a total of five conversations that were posted on the Internet late Monday, Erdogan and Bilal appear to be discussing ways to get an undisclosed sum of money in euros, dollars and Turkish liras out of Bilal’s house in Istanbul. Bilal, 33, is the younger of Erdogan’s two sons. The prime minister also has two daughters, Esra and Sumeyye.
“Son, are you home?” a voice resembling that of Erdogan asks at the beginning of the first conversation, said to have been held on the morning of December 17, the day Istanbul prosecutors had several dozen people, including the sons of four ministers of Erdogan’s cabinet, arrested on corruption charges.
Erdogan, who is allegedly calling from Ankara, tells Bilal about the arrests and says he should “get out everything that you have in your house”. Bilal answers: “What should I have here? Your money is in the safe.” “That’s what I’m talking about,” Erdogan allegedly responds. He then tells Bilal to confer with his brother Burak, his sister Sumeyye and other relatives.
In a later conversation on the same day, Bilal allegedly reports to his father that he has not been able to “nullify” the whole sum left in the house and has 30 million Euros left.
Many questions were left unanswered. Some media reports claimed that the total sum Erdogan and his son were talking about equaled hundreds of millions of dollars, an immense volume of cash with a weight of several hundred kilograms. No reason was given in the reports why Erdogan should decide to keep such a bulk in a private home.
It also remained unclear who taped the alleged conversations and why. As news of the recording broke, Istanbul’s top prosecutor said a total of 2,280 people had been wire-tapped over three years by prosecutors who were fired recently. Pro-government newspapers reported that Erdogan was among those targeted.
Fake or genuine, the telephone leaks have damaged the Prime Minister. Bilal Erdogan’s greeting to his father on the telephone, “Alo babacigim” or “Hi Dad,” has become a new slogan for anti-government protesters in Turkey. Fans at a soccer stadium in Istanbul this week unfolded a banner saying “Hi Dad—there are thieves about,” in a reference to the alleged corruption.
Erdogan argues the corruption charges from December as well as the leak of the alleged conversation with his son are the work of supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric. Gulen’s movement has millions of followers in Turkey, some of whom occupy key posts in the judiciary, the police and the bureaucracy. After years of support for Erdogan, the movement started to distance itself from the government last year. Erdogan says Gulen wants to topple him, a charge the cleric denies.
Following the December corruption charges, Erdogan had thousands of alleged Gulen supporters in the police force and the judiciary replaced, among them the prosecutors leading the corruption investigation against the government. At the same time, Erdogan’s government tabled bills in parliament designed to strengthen government control over the Internet and the judiciary and giving more power to Turkey’s intelligence service, which is close to Erdogan.
The opposition says it is taking the reforms to the constitutional court because they violate basic democratic principles like the separation of powers. Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu told Erdogan to “get into a helicopter and flee abroad or resign.”
Observers say the row is expected to heat up further in the weeks leading up to local elections on March 30. The poll is seen as a key test for Erdogan and an indicator of his chances to become head of state in a presidential election expected in August. Erdogan’s aides say the electorate is so far unmoved by the corruption allegations, and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoys a strong lead in opinion polls.
But the pressure on Erdogan is unlikely to diminish until polling day in March. Gulen’s movement “wants an AKP without Erdogan,” Rusen Cakir, a respected columnist, wrote in the centrist Vatan daily.
Some observers say Erdogan has already lost much credibility through his handling of the corruption scandal and the country-wide wave of protests that started in Istanbul’s Gezi Park last year.
Mehmet Yilmaz, a columnist for the mass-selling Hurriyet daily, reminded his readers that Erdogan had misled the public several times during the Gezi riots, saying protesters defiled a mosque by drinking alcohol there, an episode that turned out to be untrue.
Erdogan’s behaviour in the past made it difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt in the current row surrounding the alleged wire-tapped phone calls, Yilmaz wrote. “How are we supposed to believe him, after those lies?” he asked.