Mafia Claims Expose Erdogan’s Political Vulnerability

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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing an uncomfortable truth: his governing party -- Turkey’s largest -- is now dependent on a marginal coalition ally to maintain its dominance. And a slew of dramatic corruption allegations from a fugitive mafia boss could further dent his flagging popularity.

People from within the governing AK Party have quietly joined opposition demands for a thorough investigation into accusations of influence-peddling made against powerful Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, and other members of Erdogan’s inner circle, in a series of YouTube videos that have attracted over 50 million viewers in recent weeks.

Mafia Claims Expose Erdogan’s Political Vulnerability

Erdogan has shunned their advice, choosing instead to join his junior partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, in voicing unconditional support for Soylu.

“We are siding with our Interior Minister in his fight against criminal organizations,” Erdogan told members of his ruling AK Party at parliament on Wednesday.

The drama has served to highlight Erdogan’s growing reliance on a partner that’s increasingly unpopular with AKP elites as his own support fades. If the gamble succeeds, it could help the AK Party cling on in parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023. If it fails, he’ll have pilfered support already ebbing after nearly two decades in power.

Grave Accusations

Unlike previous allegations against Erdogan’s associates, the latest charges come from a diehard supporter and resonate strongly with many conservative and pious Turks, including AKP members. A colorful and enigmatic criminal gang leader, Sedat Peker used his immense popularity among nationalists to rally support for Erdogan’s 2018 re-election as president with greater powers.

From Dubai, where he’s on the run from Turkish authorities, Peker has called on Erdogan to clear his ranks of what he claims is a criminal network of politicians, threatening to disclose more damning information unless action is taken. Peker said his confessions are a retaliation for the poor treatment received by his wife and their young daughter when police raided their home in Istanbul last month. The political ramifications have been much more wide-reaching, however.

“God willing, Brother Tayyip does what’s necessary to them,” Peker said in his latest video, viewed more than 14 million times on YouTube alone since he posted it on Sunday. “Otherwise people now know everything.”

Peker accused former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s son of involvement in the drug trade with Latin America and alleged key Erdogan ally Mehmet Agar seized a yachting marina to smuggle cocaine into Turkey and elsewhere.

Mafia Claims Expose Erdogan’s Political Vulnerability

Soylu, Yildirim and Agar have all denied Peker’s allegations as baseless and accused him of a smear campaign.

Erdogan’s relationship with his junior coalition partner matters because the current setup allows a marginal political party to dictate policy, including over how to handle Peker’s grave allegations, said Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s hand-picked successor as prime minister from 2014 to 2016, when he fell out with the president.

“The president is at a historic crossroads,” he said. “It’s going to be his biggest mistake if he tries to cover up.”

Flagging Popularity

The president’s approval ratings are already at record lows and support for his party is well below the 50% mark needed to win elections under the executive presidency Erdogan introduced.

Much of the AKP governing elite is uncomfortable with the current coalition, a senior official with direct knowledge of governing party politics said. The majority wants a thorough investigation even though it would hurt ties with the MHP, Soylu’s main advocate, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The ultra-nationalist group has 48 lawmakers in the 600-seat parliament and is predicted by Istanbul-based pollster Turkiye Raporu to get 6% to 9% of the votes should there have been an election next Sunday.

While that support would be insufficient to qualify the MHP for a presence in parliament outside a formal coalition with the governing party, it’s still crucial for Erdogan, whose AKP is estimated to have 26% to 34% of the votes, according to the same pollster.

“As long they remain loyal to the project of strengthening the presidential system in Turkey, Erdogan’s political survival depends on” the MHP, said Mehmet Ali Caliskan, head of Istanbul-based political advisory Social Impact Research Center.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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