A Guide to Understanding Turkey’s Corruption Scandal

Dec 19, 2013 at 6:54 PM ET

This week, the Turkish police organized dawn raids on the homes of sons of the three ministers, local government officials and prominent businessmen close to the government. More than 50 people were swept up and detained on allegations of corruption, gold smuggling and bribery. The crackdown surprised Turkey’s control-freak Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, who ducked questions on the corruption allegations against his allies. Instead, Erdoğan implicitly held a preacher living in Pennsylvania named Fethullah Gülen—and his Islamist, cult-like political movement—responsible for the probe, calling the group a “state within the state.”

Political analysts see the unexpected wave of arrests as the latest battle in a deepening war over power between two Islamist camps that were once allies. The timing of this operation is critical for the Turkish government, which might lose its pious and conservative base of support over the corruption allegations. It might also hamper Erdogan’s aspirations to become president.

If all these political battles have you baffled, rest assured. We’ll break it down for you in five answers.

1. What is the scandal?

The Turkish police started a major corruption operation on Dec. 17, arresting the sons of Interior Minister Muammer Güler (whose cabinet oversees the police), Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, and Environment and City Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar. Also among the dozens of detainees were the CEO of state-owned Halk Bank, Süleyman Aslan, and billionaire construction tycoon Ali Ağaoğlu. Ağaoğlu is infamous for his mega-construction projects and works with Turkey’s notoriously secretive mass-housing administration TOKI. The husband of a Turkish pop star is also accused of smuggling billions in gold to Iran.

Following a yearlong investigation, police found cash totaling millions of U.S. dollars and Turkish lira at the apartment of the Güler’s son with a money-counting machine and six safes. At the Aslan’s house $4.5 million in cash was found hidden in shoe boxes. The corruption operation, executed in a top-secret manner, is seen as a huge blow to the government in the wake of local elections next March.

2. Why is there controversy over the raids?

On paper, the Turkish judiciary is independent, but in reality it is a battleground for power, with judges and prosecutors pulled into the fights of political power players. In the last decade, the Gülen movement has reportedly increased its influence within the Turkish police and judiciary. Many political analysts this week reported that neither Erdoğan nor even his interior minister, who is responsible for the police force, had any idea about the latest corruption probe, a sign of Gülen’s growing power within the country’s institutions. Erdoğan and his government implicitly held Gülen responsible for the operation against the government and vowed to fight the “gangs.”

3. How much power does Gülen have?

This is the million-dollar question. Fethullah Gülen is a mysterious Muslim preacher who has lived in self-imposed exile on a ranch in Pennsylvania since 1999, after he escaped charges of trying to overthrow the secular state. For more than 40 years, Gülen managed to gather millions of followers, creating an empire-like network with hundreds of schools all around the world, media organizations, business associations and charity groups. The Gülen movement, also known as Hizmet (Service) or Cemaat (Community), says it is defending moderate Islam, but is regularly criticized for its lack of transparency and accountability with its funds. The Gülen movement is important because of its political, economic and grassroots influence in Turkey. Now that former allies Gülen and Erdoğan have become foes, the war between them might determine the future of the country’s power structure.

4. Why are they fighting? They’re both Islamist, right?


The fight is over power, plain and simple. Gülen and Erdoğan formed an unofficial coalition to carry the latter and his party to power in 2002. In the years following, the two scratched each other’s backs. The common aim of the two camps was to get rid of the formidable Turkish military, which was hostile to the Islamist groups within the state. They knee-capped the military with the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials that put hundreds of generals and high-level military officers in jail, charged with plotting a coup.

After curbing the military’s power, differences in domestic and foreign politics bubbled to the surface and each side started seeing the other as a potential threat to its existence last year. This week’s raid came after Erdoğan recently announced plans to shut down all private prep schools for university exams. Gülenists run many of these schools and use them to heavily recruit new followers. Gülen’s lawyer denied all the accusations about his client being involved in the police operation.

5. Will Erdoğan and Gülen kiss and make up?


Very unlikely. Erdoğan already reciprocated by firing dozens of high-level police officers for not knowing about the operation. The government also assigned new prosecutors to the case, taking it away from the prosecutor who allegedly has links to the Gülen movement. The ministers cloaked in scandal may resign to protect Erdoğan before the elections, but unless the Gülen movement has damaging information about Erdoğan himself or his family, a deal seems out of reach.