Turkish opposition gains momentum with corruption display, ruling party conflict

The 270,000-square-metre Yenikapı Square in a coastal district of Istanbul is best known for the huge political rallies Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has held there since opening the square in 2013.

But it was a very different display that took place last week on the square, where the city’s new opposition mayor lined up row upon row of white cars rented by the previous ruling party administration to highlight the scale of its wasteful spending.

The new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu of the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), had vowed in his election campaign to prove the extent that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had milked the city’s coffers over 25 years in charge.

The 1,717 vehicles İmamoğlu said had been rented from a government-linked business at great taxpayer expense for 643 municipal directors, and the 824 vehicles rented for 124 directors and the Istanbul Water and Sewerage Administration (İSKİ), are parts of what the opposition describes as a pyramid scheme.

The new CHP administration says many of these vehicles were rented by the previous municipal administration and then handed over to individuals linked to the AKP for their personal use.

A 2017 audit by Turkey’s Court of Accounts has revealed vastly inflated fuel expenses for the vehicles – a clear sign that municipal funds had been exploited through fraudulent means.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Half of the vehicles were rented from Platform Tourism. The company’s owner, Adem Altunsoy, is the son-in-law of Nari Albayrak of Albayrak Holding, a conglomerate that has been among the chief beneficiaries of the AKP’s period in power.

The opposition claims that not only were many of the vehicles handed over to people unrelated to the work they were supposedly rented for, but that the municipality paid Platform Tourism more than the going rate for the vehicles.

They were then used in a mechanism to earn more illicit income from municipal funds through inflated fuel costs.

The government has so far not responded to these claims, except for a single statement by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on September 6.

Soylu, however, suggested that it was not the alleged corruption that had caused needless expense to the public but the fact that the municipality had taken the vehicles out of service.

In one sense, it is difficult at the moment to argue with Soylu’s statement, because the vehicles are still being gathered in Yenikapı, and İmamoğlu is yet to make a final statement on the issue.

Among the vehicles are work trucks and small vehicles that are unlikely to have been used in the mechanism described above. These have been the focus of criticism from pro-AKP commentators, who have accused İmamoğlu of needlessly rounding up vehicles to make a show.

The Istanbul mayor is expected to make a statement revealing why those vehicles have been included in the display.

İmamoğlu is undoubtedly playing for high stakes.

The CHP mayor won the March 31 local election with a slim margin, but in a strategic mistake, Erdoğan pushed for an annulment, saying electoral fraud had taken place. İmamoğlu’s victory in the rerun extended his lead to a huge margin and placed him on the front ranks of Turkey’s political figures. He is now thought of by many as a main contender in the next presidential elections.

The revelation of a corruption network in Istanbul could be another great victory for İmamoğlu, and perhaps even more important than his victory in the two elections this year.

For what is coming to light is not only a clear case of corruption, but evidence of the system that the AKP has run the country through for decades.

But if İmamoğlu is unable to make a satisfactory explanation on the vehicles, it will show that the CHP has still made no progress as an opposition party – though it currently looks doubtful that he would make such a mistake.

Apart from anything else, the ruling party appears vulnerable during a period when it is facing serious foreign policy challenges in the Syrian conflict and in its relations with its allies.

Above all, the challenges on the domestic front have multiplied this year with the emergence of rebels within Erdoğan’s own party.

On one side is former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was forced to resign and sidelined in 2016 over apparent conflicts with the president. On the other is Ali Babacan, a well-regarded former deputy prime minister who resigned from the party to work on a centrist movement with support from former president Abdullah Gül in July. Both are expected to launch political parties by the year’s end.
These are becoming focal points for discontented AKP members who are leaving the party.

With Erdoğan caught in a bind that he is unable to escape, and with his discourse increasingly abandoning logic, it is a near certainty that he will throw everything he has got at the opposition.

Under these conditions, the most painless course that could lead Turkey at least back to a rational political agenda would be for the members of the AKP

This makes the initiatives of Babacan, Davutoğlu and the others all the more important. Babacan represents a rational and intelligent economic approach, and he is said to be backed by heavyweights including former president Abdullah Gül and Beşir Atalay, who also served as a deputy prime minister for the AKP.

Davutoğlu, meanwhile, has been gradually stepping up his criticism of the government as a spokesman for political ethics and leadership.

In a period when events progress at a dizzying pace, the splinter groups may appear somewhat slow-moving and even ineffectual. That is far from extraordinary at such a complex and opaque juncture, when a plethora of interrelated factors are in play.

It is not difficult to see that there are great changes coming soon in Turkey. Not is it difficult to predict that Davutoğlu and Babacan’s factions, despite currently swearing off any relationship, could soon unite with other AKP dissenters.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.