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Erdogan’s ex-confidant Bayraktar: Will he speak?

Erdogan Bayraktar, Turkey’s proverbial “contractor-in-chief” for a decade, who resigned from his post in the government after his son was briefly detained on corruption charges, and called on PM Erdogan to follow suit, is seen as the “black box” of government’s mostly unaudited business.
Turkey's outgoing Environment and City Planning Minister Erdogan Bayraktar talks during a handover ceremony in Ankara December 26, 2013. Turkey's opposition accused scandal-hit Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday of trying to rule via a secretive "deep state", after a cabinet reshuffle that would tighten controls on police already beleaguered by government-ordered purges. Bayraktar, one of the three cabinet members who quit on Wednesday over their sons' detention, broke ranks by urging the premier to

The two men certainly share more than a name. In fact, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ex-member of his government Erdogan Bayraktar considered each other comrades and confidants for a couple of decades.

They seem to have much in common:

Both hail from the coastal towns of the Black Sea and both are self-declared “lovers of Istanbul.” Both are conservative and take pride in their piety. Both are passionate about mortar and cement, so much so that, working in tandem, they turned Turkey into one gigantic building site.

Their construction crusade started in 1994 when Erdogan — then the recently elected mayor of Istanbul — decided to restructure an inactive municipal company as a major residential development venture called Kiptas under Bayraktar’s management. In the four years that followed, the latter oversaw the building of 17,000 residential units in Istanbul and, through their sale, provided a substantial income to the municipality.

Then came the “big bonanza” years.

Within weeks of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) winning its first parliamentary elections in November 2002, Bayraktar was appointed to direct TOKI, the single responsible public body within the housing sector in Turkey. With Bayraktar at TOKI's helm, Erdogan progressively turned it into a more powerful and less accountable entity that was overseen only by the office of the prime minister and operated under a system in which, to quote economist Guven Sak, “the judge, the prosecutor and the police were one and the same.”

In the last decade, TOKI has constructed over half a million buildings; developed vast volumes of treasury-owned land, including the rezoning of environmentally protected areas; managed, authorized and subcontracted thousands of construction projects; and single-handedly awarded tenders to the private companies of its choice.

While the income generated as a result is not at all transparent, the figures provided by TOKI show that its land portfolio as of December 2012 amounted to more than 118 million square meters and the value of its real estate holdings was estimated at more than $7 billion.

Bayraktar managed TOKI for more than nine years until his resignation in 2011 to run for parliament. Soon after, he became the minister of environment and urban planning in the third government led by Erdogan.

The two men clearly shared an ambition and were a team. Yet they were never equals. Erdogan, 59, was the chief (or, to use his self-assumed title of late, “the master”). Bayraktar, 65, was Turkey’s proverbial contractor-in-chief; while certainly not an apprentice, he was the master’s ever loyal headworker.

Erdogan decided what was to be done; Bayraktar did it. Erdogan requested; Bayraktar delivered. And when Erdogan was dissatisfied, Bayraktar would kneel before him. Literally!

The images taken at an official event in August 2013 showed Bayraktar genuflecting before a comfortably seated and angrily gesturing Erdogan. A few days later, Bayraktar explained why he did what he did.

“He warned me about the [ugly] silhouette of buildings by the road. … He is my chief, my prime minister. It is the Recep Tayyip Erdogan cabinet, it is the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government. … He is not an ordinary prime minister. What should have I done? I had to genuflect to hear him. Official manners are important. Hierarchy is important.”

Within that hierarchy, the premier also has been forthcoming with occasional praise. In November, when Bayraktar’s son was getting married, Erdogan not only attended the wedding ceremony as the groom’s witness, but also delivered a speech in which he called the Bayraktars “a heedful family of great qualities.”

Thus worked the mechanics of a partnership that saw the building industry become the bedrock of Turkey’s economy as well as a major vehicle of capital accumulation for the AKP — if not directly, then by way of many a friendly and well satisfied contractor. There never seemed to be a hitch between Erdogan and Bayraktar.

Until two weeks ago.

On Dec. 25, Bayraktar joined interior minister Muammer Guler and economy minister Zafer Caglayan, who announced their resignations earlier that day, more than a week after their sons were implicated in a graft probe and taken into custody. [For a good summary of the events that unfolded on Christmas day in Turkey, read Yavuz Baydar’s recent Al-Monitor column.]

Bayraktar’s son — another son, not the recently wed one — was also detained on corruption charges, but unlike the other ministers’ sons who were sent to jail, the young Bayraktar was released by the court. Erdogan still wanted Bayraktar to step down.

He obeyed, but in a manner no one had expected of him. While the other ministers just left their posts and remained as deputies, Bayraktar resigned from both the government and the parliament, thus forfeiting his shield of legal immunity before the courts. He also publicly invited Erdogan to join him.

“I do not accept the pressure being put on me [by the prime minister] in the way of saying, ‘Resign because of an operation in which there are statements of bribery and corruption and release a declaration that will relieve me.’ I do not accept this, because a large part of the confirmed zoning plans that are in the investigation file were made under the orders of Mr. Prime Minister. … For the sake of the well-being of this nation and country, I believe the prime minister should resign.”

With these words, Bayraktar managed to attract the animosity of the pro-Erdogan chorus within and around the government. AKP deputy Mehmet Metiner said what Bayraktar had done was “unmanly and immoral.”

Unsourced stories that Bayraktar had been co-opted by the Gulen movement, who are widely believed to be behind the graft probe, were soon being circulated by AKP-friendly media outlets.

That was that. The war between Erdogan and the Gulenists has continued with twists and turns ever since, and Bayraktar has kept a low profile.

As fellow Al-Monitor columnist Mustafa Akyol explained, no one yet knows who will win in this war and it will not be a surprise if everyone loses.

Perhaps the biggest — to turn a Rumsfeldian phrase — “known unknown” in this war, however, is that the largely unaudited operations of TOKI over the years will also be looked into if the prosecutors manage to go ahead with the graft probe despite the government’s reckless efforts to block them.

When the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Aykut Erdogdu investigated TOKI more than a year ago, he came up with several accusations of corruption, which prompted Bayraktar to make an unexpected statement before parliament.

Accusing KC Group, one of TOKI’s large-scale contractors, Bayraktar admitted to an extortion of $28 million. “We were weak. … We should have seen what was going on,” he said. “Whoever is guilty, they should be punished — including me.”

Bayraktar’s confession, which was soon forgotten thanks to the timidity of the greater part of the Turkish media, unpleasantly surprised the AKP deputies and leadership at the time. One only wonders if more surprises are in store after the acrimonious separation between the master and his headworker.

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