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Social media paint Erdogan as sleazy

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The bouquet of wilting lilies in the foyer of the Justice and Development (A.K.) party headquarters in Ankara is a fitting emblem for Turkey's ruling party. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fighting for his political life after a series of secretly taped conversations was posted on YouTube, a video-sharing website, on Feb. 24. In them he allegedly discusses with his younger son, Bilal, how to get rid of millions of euros in cash stashed in his home.

The exchanges are said to have taken place on Dec. 17. That was the day police raided the homes of sons of several members of Erdogan's cabinet and of some business allies as part of a corruption probe now labelled the biggest in recent history. Two of the ministers' sons and a business associate are in jail awaiting trial. Four cabinet ministers have been forced to resign.

Erdogan promptly denounced the recordings as a "shameless and treacherous montage" and hinted that they were the work of a powerful Sunni Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whose followers in the police and the judiciary are thought to be behind the investigations. Their aim is to unseat Erdogan, some say, perhaps before municipal elections on March 30.

Can they succeed? It is a measure of the uncertainty that has gripped the country that even habitually cautious western diplomats say, "Everything is possible." Erdogan's claims that the corruption probe is a foreign plot may have satisfied his pious core supporters, but the bombshell tapes have planted doubt in many people's minds.

They are only the latest in a series of incriminating recordings of Erdogan and his family members to be posted online. At least two million Turks have clicked on the recordings. One woman on an Istanbul commuter ferry played one loudly to other passengers. Thousands have taken to the streets, calling on the government to resign. Further demonstrations are expected.

"Erdogan's back is against the wall," says Ertugrul Gunay, a former culture minister who fell foul of the prime minister. "He could do anything to remain out of jail."

So far, Erdogan's response has been to reshuffle thousands of police officers and prosecutors thought to be Gulen operatives. More controversially, he has passed new laws to tighten Internet censorship, give the government greater control over judges and prosecutors and expand the considerable powers of the national spy agency.

Erdogan says the measures are needed in order to dismantle Gulen's "parallel state." To many, however, they are a crude attempt to cement his own grip, stop further incriminating recordings and shield himself from prosecution.

Few believe the revelations will stop here. Many are bracing for video recordings of the Erdogans spiriting out their alleged millions. As President Abdullah Gul recently conceded, no restrictions can completely stanch the flow of dirt.

Gul has drawn his share of criticism for signing the controversial Internet and judiciary laws, albeit with objections, some of which were taken into account through revisions. He was assumed to have wanted to swap jobs with Erdogan when his term expires in August. Now, though, Erdogan's presidential dreams seem unattainable unless A.K. wins heavily in March.

Numan Kurtulmus, an A.K. deputy chairman, declares, "We shall win 55 of a total of 81 cities."

It is impossible to predict, however. One leaked recording has an Erdogan flunky talking to a newspaper editor about doctoring an opinion poll.

Still, the conventional wisdom is that, unless voters feel the economic pinch, few will be bothered by their rulers' sleaze. Should this prove wrong -- and several people now expect A.K. to lose Ankara -- Erdogan's fellow party members may at last decide that it is time to replace him.

Gul is still touted as one possible successor. Another is Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister, who has a spotless reputation. The bigger question, though, is where to park Erdogan. Last week, the leader of the main opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, told the prime minister what he should do: "Get on a helicopter and leave the country."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2014 A9

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