Turkish PM behaving like a cornered rat

It's a ''treacherous attack'' and a ''dirty conspiracy'', claimed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose image as a devout Muslim and an honest man is the key to his political success.

But he didn't deny the voice on the recordings was his, nor that the other voice was that of his son Bilal.

He explained the phone calls by saying they were a ''shameless montage'' of various things he and his son had said in other, quite innocent conversations.

The four telephone conversations allegedly took place on December 17, the same day the Turkish police arrested the sons of three Cabinet members in Mr Erdogan's Government for corruption, bribery and tender-rigging.

This might easily have caused some alarm in the families of other Cabinet members, especially since the dawn raids also uncovered large sums of money whose presence in the sons' houses was hard to explain.

The police even found a money-counting machine in the house of Baris Guler, son of Interior Minister Muammer Guler.

A total of $US4.5 million ($NZ5.4 million) in cash was found hidden in shoe boxes in the house of Suleyman Aslan, director of the state-owned Halkbank, who was also arrested.

In all, 52 people, almost all of them connected in one way or another with the ruling AK Party, were arrested on that day.

In the alleged phone calls on December 17, the prime minister is asking his son Bilal to dispose of millions of euros in cash that are sitting in a house somewhere.

Bilal is to entrust the money to several businessmen for safekeeping, and make sure that none is left in the house.

In the first 24 hours after somebody posted these conversations on social media, they got 1.5 million hits.

Now, if the calls are genuine, they were probably recorded by people who knew the arrests were going to happen on that day.

(It's unlikely anybody was tapping Bilal's phone all the time, and it's too hard to tap a prime minister's phone.)

So there is definitely a plot to hurt Prime Minister Erdogan - but it might be a plot whose weapon is the truth.

Here we have either a panic-stricken prime minister instructing his son to hide the evidence of massive corruption - or a ''shameless montage'' that strings bits of innocent conversation together to lead people to a false conclusion that slanders the prime minister. Which is it?

Well, it all sounds pretty normal to me. What son has not had occasion to tell his father there are still 30 million ($NZ49 million) to be removed from the house?

What father does not sometimes have to warn his son not to go into details on the phone, as the line may be tapped? But some people have nasty, suspicious minds.

The phone calls are just the latest episode in a cascade of events that has shredded the carefully constructed image of Mr Erdogan's Government, which has won three elections in 11 years with steadily increasing majorities.

The trigger for these events, according to most observers, was a bitter but unexplained split between Mr Erdogan and his erstwhile friend and political ally, the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Mr Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, leads a conservative religious movement known as Hizmet (Service).

It has millions of followers, and its help is seen as vital in Mr Erdogan's election victories.

The split between Mr Erdogan and Mr Gulen is allegedly because of the latter's criticism of official corruption in large construction and real estate projects - and Hizmet is said by critics to be particularly influential among the judiciary and the police.

Mr Erdogan certainly saw the arrests on December 17 as a direct attack by Mr Gulen on his authority. He immediately retaliated by dismissing the senior officers in the Istanbul police force who ran the financial crime, organised crime, smuggling and anti-terrorist departments. The purge rapidly grew until about 2000 senior police officers across the country had been fired, suspended or moved to traffic duty.

The AK Party also brought in emergency legislation that would put senior judges and prosecutors under the direct control of the minister of justice (presumably so they could be prevented from bringing prosecutions against AKP members).

The European Union warned this law would prejudice Turkey's application for membership, but Mr Erdogan wasn't interested. Elections are due this year, and he is now fighting for his political life.

Mr Erdogan has had too much power for too long and he has become arrogant and reckless, but few people could have foreseen he would end up involved in such a massive corruption scandal.

Nor is his response to the crisis reassuring: firing policemen, hobbling judges and prosecutors, and blaming it all on ''dark circles'' of plotters.

This is not the behaviour of an innocent man facing unjust accusations. It is the behaviour of a cornered rat.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent London journalist.


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