Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to Europe on Monday under the shadow of a massive graft scandal, his once unshakeable grip on power at the risk of coming unstuck with key elections looming. Juicy tales of ministerial bribe-taking, gold smuggling, phone-tapping, illicit dealings with Iran and shoeboxes stuffed with wads of cash have sullied his party’s clean image.
And his response to the corruption investigation - a massive purge of police and a clampdown on the judiciary - has set alarm bells ringing about the state of democracy in Turkey.
The bellicose leader blames his woes on an erstwhile ally, powerful exiled preacher Fetullah Gulen, firing off almost daily tirades about coup plots and foreign conspiracies to down his Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP).
But concerns are mounting about what many see as Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic actions after 11 years at the helm of a government once hailed as a model of a Muslim democracy.
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan last week of wanting to establish “one-man rule in Turkey” and “concentrate all state power to himself”.
While Erdogan managed to stand down his critics after the massive June protests - opinion polls later even showed a jump in AKP ratings - observers say the corruption probe may prove to be his political undoing.
“A lot of (AKP) members have felt uneasy about Erdogan’s stance since the beginning of the scandal,” said one Western diplomat. “When a majority of them feels endangered, it’s going to be difficult for him to stay at the helm.”
He has been forced into a cabinet reshuffle after the resignation of four ministers over the graft probe, and had to fend off allegations his son was facing investigation.
The young boy who sold bread and lemons on the streets of Istanbul to earn his keep grew up to become the mayor of Turkey’s biggest city and then the longest-serving prime minister in its modern history.
He has been credited with bringing stability after a history of coups and rocky coalitions, clipping the wings of the powerful military.
He also transformed what was once an economic basketcase into a robust market, tripling the income of ordinary Turks and reining in runaway inflation.
The achievements helped the “Sultan” steer the Islamic-leaning party he co-founded with President Abdullah Gul to three straight election wins since 2002, notching up a bigger share of the vote each time.
‘From democracy to authoritarianism’
But since his government’s harsh crackdown on the June protests, cracks have been showing in his power base that could influence local elections in March.
He has fallen out with Gulen, a US-based cleric who was once a key ally but who Erdogan now blames for masterminding the graft probe through supporters in the judiciary and police.
His strong partnership with Gul, who emerged as a conciliatory figure during the June unrest and more recently over AKP moves to tighten its grip on the judiciary, is also on shaky ground.
Ordinary Turks are suspicious of moves to Islamise society and extend government controls on their private lives - with restrictions on alcohol sales, curbs on the Internet and even efforts to ban mixed-sex dorms at state universities.
Erdogan’s attacks on the media and a tendency to use the courts to silence his enemies added to fears about basic freedoms and rights, leading to talk about the “Putinisation of Erdogan,” in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s steamrolling of rivals.
“Since he took office, the prime minister has gradually shifted from pragmatist tendencies to ideological ones, from team work to personal decisions, from democracy to authoritarianism, from thought-out policies to impulsive ones,” said Ilter Turan, professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
Erdogan took a big political risk when he launched peace talks in 2012 with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and at one time was a popular figure on the Arab street for his staunch support of the Palestinian cause. But his popularity abroad sharply declined in the wake of the Syrian war and Arab Spring uprisings, dealing a blow to his ambitions of becoming a regional powerbroker.
Rumours have continued to circulate about Erdogan’s health after he had two major intestinal operations, and his doctors have been forced to deny claims he had cancer. But the former semi-professional footballer keeps up a punishing schedule of meetings, party rallies and foreign visits.
AKP bylaws preclude Erdogan from running for a fourth term in 2015. So he had set his sights on becoming president, if the constitution was changed to give the post sweeping US-style executive powers. But with just eight months to go until the presidential vote, parliament has failed to redraw the 1980 post-coup constitution, and speculation is rife about Gul’s own plans.
Cengiz Aktar, political sciences professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul, said the impact of the graft probe remained unclear. “However, we can be sure that those elections will be turned into a referendum pro or anti-Erdogan and that their results will determine everyone’s strategy and future.”–AFP