January 7, 2014 6:40 pm

Political battle in Turkey intensifies with fresh arrests

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan©AFP

The two sides in the deepening battle within the Turkish state traded blows on Tuesday, with the government removing or transferring police officers and proposing rules for judges and prosecutors even as fresh arrests were made in the most recent corruption probe.

The latest phase in the political crisis provoked by the confrontation between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the police, prosecutors and judges came as Fitch Ratings, the rating agency, warned that “if the corruption scandal drags on, it could weaken the government and undermine its ability” to manage the economy. But the agency added that the crisis had “not yet had a material adverse impact on the macroeconomic outlook”.

After falling to record lows against the dollar in recent days – including a drop to TL2.194 on Monday – the Turkish lira recovered in mid-afternoon trading to TL2.160, while the leading stock exchange index edged up 1 per cent on the day.

In an overnight move, the government shifted about 350 police officers from positions in Ankara, its latest attempt to weed out what Mr Erdogan describes as a “parallel state” – a reference to law enforcement officials belonging to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, an Muslim preacher who was previously allied with the ruling AK party.

Many of those transferred were moved from specialist positions in departments such as organised crime and intelligence to posts within the traffic police. Hurriyet, the newspaper, said 1700 police officers had been transferred in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir alone since the first corruption arrests on December 17.

On Tuesday night, the AK party proposed in legislation to parliament to make changes to the country’s high council of judges and prosecutors, a body that has differed with Mr Erdogan over the crisis.

Turkish media also reported shifts of personnel in the finance and education ministries on Tuesday.

But, in a sign of the challenges facing the government as it seeks to establish control over the police force, law enforcement authorities made arrests in Izmir on Tuesday morning as part of a probe into possible corruption at the state railway authority.

Binali Yildirim, the AK party mayoral candidate for Izmir in March elections, suggested the timing of the arrests was politically suspect, and two police chiefs involved in the operation were removed later in the day.

“The government is panicking,” said Kadri Gursel, a Turkish columnist. “Because they don’t have time to thoroughly investigate where the Gulenists are or who are the real Gulenists, they are emptying the police force wholesale. It is a battle that no one is winning. Everyone is losing – losing legitimacy.”

In another sign of the difficulties facing Mr Erdogan’s administration, prosecutors late last week managed to enforce a court order freezing the assets of seven businessmen close to the government as part of the broader corruption probe, even though the changes to the country’s police force and the prosecution service have in effect prevented investigators from carrying out searches of suspects’ houses or from calling them in for questioning.

The businessmen themselves, several of whom are seeking financing for plans to build and operate a huge new airport for Istanbul, have denounced allegations against them – which have not been formally served – as baseless.

Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan himself has shown no appetite for compromise, declaring his goal of defeating what he terms a “judicial coup”.

Over the weekend, the prime minister revealed that Mr Gulen had sent a letter that appeared to plead for an end to hostilities – but Mr Erdogan appeared to reject it. In the letter, written on December 22, Mr Gulen suggested a truce in return for an end to the public campaign against his movement: “If media broadcasts that can be seen as black propaganda are stopped, I believe my friends will also prefer serenity,” he was reported as saying by the Turkish press.

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