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'Slim Chances' of Prosecution Seen in Turkish Corruption Probe

FILE - Ruling Justice and Development Party lawmakers and members of the Republican People's Party skirmish during debate on corruption charges against ministers in the cabinet of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey, May 5, 2014.

On December 17 last year, Turks awoke to reports of police raids against relatives of senior government ministers. Images of police carrying shoeboxes full of cash from a banker’s home became synonymous with the probe.

In the following days, recordings emerged that implicated Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who then was prime minister and now is president, as well as members of his family. But a year later, said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University, the allegations have served only to deepen the political polarization of Turkey.

"There are very slim chances they will be prosecuted," Aktar said. "Quite to the contrary — for the government, there is no graft, there is no corruption, there is no wrongdoing. There is only a coup attempt against an elected government, full stop. But there is no guarantee at all [that] the entire affair is buried. For the opposition, for civil society, it is far from being over."

Interior Minister Efkan Ala rejected the allegations again Wednesday as nothing more than an anti-government plot, claiming that Israel could be involved. But for Erdogan, the supposed plot is the work of followers of his former ally, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.

One inquiry left

The judicial investigations have ended with no prosecutions, and the government has taken control of the judiciary. Meanwhile, thousands of police officers have been dismissed, along with prosecutors and judges involved in the probes. The last remaining inquiry is being conducted by parliament, but a court order bans any reporting on it.

That inquiry, which is due to end this month, is under the control of the ruling party, and analysts predict it will clear all those accused. The government has also extended police powers to investigate those who it says are behind the probe. Even financial institutions are affected, according to consultant Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.

"New regulations make research presumably defaming the government or the financial markets a crime, potentially [punishable] by prison," Yesilada said. "Nobody dares to express their opinion to their clients; there is really an atmosphere of fear. Frank opinions are only expressed in road trips abroad."

Small anti-government protests were held in several cities to mark the anniversary of the graft allegations. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, held a ceremony in which he appealed to the religious sensibilities of the ruling AK Party's Islamist supporters. Religious people, he said, do not steal others' money, but instead stand with the poor and the oppressed.

Popular at polls

Observers point out that government supporters remained loyal during local elections in March and elected Erdogan president with over 50 percent of the vote in August. But political scientist Aktar said Turkey’s political leadership is still worried about political repercussions from the allegations.

"The entire judiciary system, the entire media freedom is curtailed, because of the risk of disclosure, prosecution," Aktar said. "The government is extremely concerned about the consequences on the parliamentary election due to take place in June in next year."

The prime minister’s chief adviser, Etyen Mahcupiyan, said the government would eventually have to speak about the allegations in a transparent and convincing way or risk paying a higher price at the polls.

Turkey’s robust economy may help to explain why voters have given the government and president the benefit of the doubt. But with unemployment rising and the economy slowing, analysts said, citizens may not be so forgiving in next year’s election.