Turkey’s prime minister found himself embroiled in a corruption scandal as a result of a leaked audio recording posted on YouTube on Monday.
The video allegedly reveals four conversations between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son, Bilal, where they talk about hiding millions of dollars, on the same day a huge graft inquiry began.
By Tuesday, the viral video had reached more than three million views. But, ultimately, it probably won't matter.
Erdogan, leader of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) since 2002, addressed the nation in a televised address on Tuesday and claimed the recording was fake.
"They presented a play that was written and dubbed by them,” Erdogan said in the speech. "We will reveal one-by-one the disgraces of the parallel organization and we will make those who walk with them so embarrassed they won't be able to go onto the street."
“They” refers to a powerful community in Turkey led by Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. His followers in Turkey have stepped up pressure against the ruling party following an earlier split with Erdogan, who referred to them vaguely as a “parallel organization.”
In the leaked audio, the prime minister allegedly instructs his son to hide the huge amounts of cash and warn his relatives to do the same.
“They are searching the houses of 18 people under a big corruption operation thing,” Erdogan told his 33-year-old son over the phone, according to an English translation of the leaked recordings. “Take everything that you have in the house out. OK?” The authenticity of the recording cannot be verified independently by VICE News.
The leaked calls
It’s claimed the recording was made on December 17. That same day Turkey’s security services searched houses of Erdogan’s allies in a massive corruption investigation. Three cabinet ministers' sons were arrested as a result.
“Either you take a helicopter and flee abroad or resign,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, an opposition leader of the Republican People’s Party, in parliament on Tuesday.
The scandal is unlikely to spell the end of Erdogan’s political career, it but may damage his party ahead of the local elections in March.
In Turkey, a wiretap alone cannot bring down a politician whose time in office has coincided with economic prosperity and stability. “Turks have a different view of corruption,” said Mehmet Ali Tugtan, assistant professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University, noting it would not be enough to finish Erdogan’s presidency. “(They think) whoever comes next will steal as well.”
But there is more at stake here than a corruption scandal from a wiretap.
After the Gezi Park protest movement subsided since the summer, Erdogan’s opponents have stepped up pressure against him, criticizing his governing style and economic difficulties. These include slowing growth and devaluation of Turkish lira.
“It’s the concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister,” Tugtan told VICE News. “He’s personalized the state, which leads to dictatorship.” In recent elections, AKP garnered between 41 and 49 percent of votes.
“Despite the current political turmoil in Turkey, political stability is not at stake,” assured Mehmet Simsek, the Turkish finance minister, in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Monday called “Turkey Will Rise Above Fear.”
In fact, for many Turks, who do not have access to social media or watch state-controlled television, Erdogan’s corruption is not worth risking their lives to fight police in the streets or challenge the status quo.
“It’s very difficult for the non-violent movement (such as the Gezi Park protests last year) to take hold,” said Tugtan. “The government still has a very firm support base.” The question is whether Erdogan will be able to maintain it.