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Turkey’s ruling 'White Party' turning gray, critics say

Recent allegations stand in contrast to the ruling Justice and Development Party's pledges to rid Turkey of systemic corruption.
A photograph taken on May 26, 2021, in Istanbul shows Sedat Peker speaking on his YouTube channel.

Crime pays in Turkey. That is apparently the lesson former Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan — who was sacked in April after selling anti-COVID-19 sanitizer produced by a company she owns jointly with her husband to the ministry she was running — deduced from the affair.

A video shared by Turkish investigative journalist Ismail Saymaz today showed a man and a woman alleged to be Pekcan’s chauffeur and her secretary pouring bottles of the disinfectant through a sieve to catch particles of fungus that had formed in the yellowish liquid. The apparent purpose was to sanitize the sanitizer before rebottling it for sale.

Images of the purported scam became a top trending topic on Twitter amid howls of disgust.

Pekcan has yet to comment on the allegations, but few would fault her for believing she remains above the law. In May, a parliamentary motion tabled by the main opposition to investigate nepotism and fraud claims against Pekcan (they claimed she had sold her product to the ministry above its market value) was voted down by lawmakers from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its allies from the far-right Nationalist Action Party. Her misdemeanors are the tip of the iceberg, opposition lawmakers say.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his “AK” (or “White Party,” as the AKP calls itself) rose to power in 2002 vowing to free Turkey of the web of systemic corruption that has linked government officials and institutions to the business world and the mafia for decades. It also pledged to salvage the Turkish economy, which lay in collapse.

As things currently stand, the economy is in worse shape than when the AKP took charge, and “corruption has become a defining characteristic of [Turkey’s] authoritarian regime,” said Berk Esen, an assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.

Little has changed: the ruling party awards contracts to government insiders and business cronies who also benefit from easy loans from state-run banks.

In the last seven to eight years during which Erdogan began to concentrate power into his own hands, “the disbursement of funds and spoils is being directed through President Erdogan by members of his inner circle. People who rise within the regime use their political influence to reap economic benefits and are committing grave crimes,” Esen said. “The more authoritarian and personalized the regime becomes, the greater the corruption becomes. The Ruhsar Pekcan affair is just a further example of this."

During its first decade of 19 years of uninterrupted rule, the AKP helped lift millions of Turks out of poverty with cheap credit fueling steady growth and EU membership talks boosting business confidence. Rumors of corruption, however, began swirling early on as potential foreign investors complained about having to pay hefty bribes for an audience with Erdogan, who was seen as the key to unlocking deals.

The defanging of Turkey’s media started then. Aydin Dogan, the country’s top media boss, was slapped with multibillion-dollar fines when his titles began reporting on government graft. Few, however, could foresee just how bad things would get, critics say.

Turkey currently ranks 86 (with a score of 40) among 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. Compared to only seven years ago, the country dipped by 33 spots in its ranking and by 10 points overall.

Since May, Sedat Peker, a fugitive organized crime boss, has been lobbing explosive allegations against members of Erdogan’s government from his haven in Dubai. They range from cocaine trafficking and extortion to murder and rape. The number of recent cocaine seizures involving Turkish citizens and destinations prompted Ali Babacan, a former AKP economy minister who broke away to form his own political party, to complain that “Turkey is now internationally known as a narco state.”  

Peker hasn’t implicated Erdogan so far, instead presenting his revelations as a cris de coeur aimed at informing the Turkish leader — and the public — of the sleaze in which the country is engulfed. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu is the main target for now. Peker has thrown in screen shots of text messages and audio recordings incriminating Soylu and his associates.

Peker’s latest string of bombshells relayed in a 50-tweet-long Twitter thread, however, seems to be shifting the gun toward the president’s inner circle. Peker alleged among other things that Burhan Kuzu, an AKP lawmaker who died of COVID-19 in November, had used the switchboard at the president’s communications director’s office in Ankara to place calls to various bureaucrats whom he pressured to grant financial favors to various shady businesspeople and members of the underworld.

Prior to his death, Kuzu was facing prosecution for allegedly helping Naji Sharifi Zindashti — a notorious Iranian heroin trafficker who has allegedly assisted in the murders of numerous Iranian dissidents by the Iranian regime — evade justice. One of Kuzu’s aides, Sinan Ciftci, injected further controversy today by claiming the former parliamentarian had been murdered. “They pulled the plug (on the ventilator) in the hospital to silence him,” Ciftci alleged in an interview with journalist Saban Sevinc.

Kuzu, a Paris-trained constitutional law professor who sat on the parliament’s Constitutional Committee for many years, played a key role in crafting the executive presidency that replaced the parliamentary system in 2017 and eased Erdogan’s path to one-man rule.

He is accused of receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks from Zindashti and other kingpins.

Ciftci further alleged that Kuzu “used” Erdogan’s son in-law, disgraced former Economy Minister Berat Albayrak, Vice President Fuat Oktay and parliament speaker Mustafa Sentop to aid his schemes.  

Peker accused Kuzu of falling prey to his weakness for women, which was then exploited by criminals who blackmailed him in exchange for their silence. 

While many of the claims have yet to be corroborated, not one has been investigated with the exception of the alleged role of a former Turkish general in the 1996 murder of an investigative journalist from Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus. Meanwhile, thousands of people who have dared to criticize the government have faced prosecution and been sentenced to jail, noted Ahmet Sik, a lawmaker for the left-wing Turkish Workers’ Party.

It is unthinkable that Erdogan would not have been aware of the allegations, said Timur Soykan, an investigative journalist and author of a recent book on Turkey’s drug wars.

“The reason Erdogan is not commenting on any of the claims is that he hopes they will fade over time,” Soykan added.

The government has managed to successfully bury previous corruption scandals, including one that pointed to Erdogan’s complicity in a multibillion-dollar oil for gold sanctions-busting scheme carried out by jailed Turkish Azerbaijani businessman Reza Zarrab.

Zarrab is currently serving as a witness for the prosecution in the Federal District Court’s case against Turkish state money lender Halkbank, which is accused of being at the center of the money-laundering scheme. 

This time may be different, argues Sik, because the economy — which long underpinned Erdogan’s electoral success — is in shambles and voters may be less forgiving in nationwide presidential and parliamentary elections that are due to be held in 2023. “Peker’s claims may be fabricated or incomplete, but most are true. This is what the public believes,” Sik said. 

Either way, Erdogan’s dilemma is that he is now hostage to the maze of corrupt dealings “because these are what sustain his power,” says political scientist Esen.

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