The decision on Monday by the ruling party-dominated graft commission in Parliament charged with investigating allegations of corruption and evaluating whether or not there is sufficient evidence to refer four former Cabinet ministers to trial will have far-reaching repercussions for Turkish politics.
“This will be a milestone for politics,” vowed main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Gürsel Tekin.
He told Today’s Zaman that he believes the commission will not be able to send the former ministers to the Constitutional Court to stand trial because President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is terrified about their responses to the serious charges.
The parliamentary commission was established to look into claims of graft raised just over a year ago and is scheduled to render a decision on whether to refer the ex-ministers accused of corruption to the top court for trial or drop the investigation.
It is widely rumored in the capital that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been asking ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputies on the commission to vote for a Constitutional Court trial. President Erdoğan, however, is said to be staunchly opposed to such a move, fearing that the trial may lead to incriminations against him and his family members. Erdoğan reportedly also told AK Party lawmakers that he does not trust Constitutional Court President Haşim Kılıç, who has been critical of government interference in the judiciary.
Tekin said the vote, scheduled for Monday, is also likely to confirm that the ruling party is totally subordinate to the wishes of Erdoğan and that no one else matters in the decision-making process.
The president and his allies in the government, backed by pro-government media outlets, have been lobbying for AK Party lawmakers on the graft commission, including the chairman, Hakkı Köylü, a former prosecutor, to vote against sending the former ministers to court. According to many observers, Erdoğan is concerned that at trial the ministers may tell the tale of Erdoğan’s suspected role in the whole network of corruption.
For his part, Davutoğlu reportedly wants them to be tried by the Constitutional Court with a carefully screened and watered-down indictment so that he can tout his government as being tough on corruption in the critical parliamentary elections to be held in June.
The results of the vote in the commission will make it clearer how much sway Davutoğlu has in the decision-making process of the government, which is dominated by Erdoğan’s loyalists.
İsmet Büyükataman, secretary-general of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), told Today’s Zaman that if the commission clears the former ministers, the ruling party will be convicted in the public conscience.
Ataman also said he knew of a great many deputies in the ruling party who are not comfortable with the idea of clearing the graft suspects, and said that if they do not vote for the trial, that means the will of the ruling party’s lawmakers is in the hands of others.
“There is simply no free will in the AKP [AK Party],” he said.
If the commission decides to refer former ministers to the Supreme State Council, the name the Constitutional Court assumes when it tries top state officials, then a trial will begin in the top court. If it votes against a referral to trial, then the General Assembly will hold a final vote on whether or not to send them to the court to stand trial.
The vote in the full assembly of Parliament would be secret, prompting fears that some ruling party deputies may defect and decide to vote for a trial. A simple majority, which corresponds to 276 votes in the 550-member Parliament, would be enough to send the former ministers to the top court.
The work of the commission has been quite damaging to the government, as it exposed more details of the corruption investigations that became public in December 2013 and which were downplayed by the government and dubbed an international conspiracy disguised as a judicial coup. Erdoğan also claimed that the operation was orchestrated by bureaucrats affiliated with the faith-based Hizmet movement, which he alleges intends to overthrow his government. Yet no evidence has been provided in over a year that indicates any conspiracy of Hizmet or global powers having a role in the police and judicial probes.
Tekin said if there was no graft or theft in these cases and if they were attempted coups against the government, then these former ministers should testify before the Constitutional Court to clear their names.
Last week, excerpts from commission meeting minutes revealed that the assets of three of the former ministers had increased disproportionately. A report submitted to the commission by the Finance Ministry’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) as part of the investigation said that the increase in the personal assets of three of the former ministers — Zafer Çağlayan, Muammer Güler and Egemen Bağış — was disproportionate compared to their monthly salaries.
According to the minutes, Çağlayan said in his written objection to the MASAK report that the experts who prepared the report were not impartial, while Bağış maintained that the commission could not look into his accounts from before 2013.
The four former ministers — Economy Minister Çağlayan, Interior Minister Güler, European Union Affairs Minister Bağış and Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar — were forced to resign after claims of corruption followed a sweeping graft probe that went public on Dec. 17, 2013.
The establishment of the commission, which was eventually formed in June of last year, was continually delayed by the AK Party, and it was also blocked from convening a number of times by the ruling party.
Despite the fact that the commission was required to complete its work within two months after it was formed, it took eight months for the commission to be able to make a final assessment regarding the four ministers’ fate.
The commission managed to convene only 10 times in eight months and failed to take the testimony of the prosecutors who oversaw the investigation and the police chiefs who took part in corruption operations on Dec. 17 and 25, 2013.
The commission was supposed to vote on whether the former ministers should be referred to court for trial and render its decision at its last meeting on Dec. 22. It was put off until Jan. 5 at the last minute on the grounds that the commission needed time to assess objections filed by three of the accused ministers in response to the MASAK report. The Taraf daily reported that it was Erdoğan’s intervention that put off the vote.
Erdal Aksünger, a member of the commission from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), believes that the ruling party wants to water down the issue by limiting the discussion to just the increase in the assets of the former ministers.
Noting that it would not be possible to properly tackle the allegations of corruption by solely focusing on the increase in the personal assets of the former ministers, Aksünger told Today’s Zaman: “The issue is not just limited to a few apartments and a disproportionate [increase in] assets. A person involved in such great corruption would not put cash in accounts in his name or his relatives’ names.”
The opposition party members of the commission believe that the ruling party will adopt an attitude toward the allegations against the four ministers based completely on political motivations, while trying at the same time to dilute the investigation as much as possible.
“They will make an assessment on whether to refer the ex-ministers to the Supreme State Council based solely on how their votes could be affected in the upcoming general elections,” Mesut Dedeoğlu, a member of the commission from the MHP, told Today’s Zaman.
The indictment prepared by the prosecutors who oversaw the investigations concluded that Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab had bribed then-Ministers Güler, Çağlayan and Bağış, in addition to several other high-level bureaucrats, on a number of occasions in order to prevent government institutions from undermining his illegal business practices, which included illegal transfers of gold to Iran. Those former ministers were alleged to have accepted millions of dollars in bribes from Zarrab. Bayraktar was accused of procuring millions of dollars in zoning deals and construction permits.
The government reshuffled the judiciary and brought in loyalists to oversee the corruption cases, who, under political pressure, eventually dropped the charges against the suspects. Since ministers have immunity from regular prosecution, they were then to be investigated by the parliamentary commission.
The commission has 14 members. Only five of them are from the opposition parties. Considering that all five opposition deputies are expected to vote to send the former ministers to trial, at least three AK Party deputies must join the opposition for the suspects to be referred to the top court.