ISTANBUL (AFP) ― With local polls imminent, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can still draw tens of thousands to rallies on the campaign trail, but a mounting corruption scandal is doing unprecedented damage to his image.
Voice recordings published online last week ― allegedly of Erdogan and his son discussing how to hide large amounts of money ― have sparked mass protests and creating rifts within the ruling Justice and Development Party.
Analysts say the tapes have the potential to hurt the prime minister at local polls on March 30, a key test of Erdogan’s popularity ahead of a presidential election in August and parliamentary elections next year.
“Even if their authenticity is still challenged, those tapes have definitively put the whole crisis in a different perspective by placing Erdogan personally in the middle of the storm,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
“They will have a major impact on the prime minister’s popularity,” he said.
If the party’s vote share drops too far, say observers, he may start losing critical support within his own camp.
“Center-right Islamists within the party are very angry at the prime minister,” said Mehmet Akif Okur, associate professor at the Ankara-based Gazi University.
“If the AKP wins less than 40 percent, we could see mass resignations,” he said.
Eight lawmakers including a former culture minister have already resigned from the party, lowering the number of AKP seats in parliament to 318 out of 550.
“The Erdogan government has lost its legitimacy completely in the wake of the leaks,” said Dani Rodrik, professor of social sciences at the U.S.-based Institute for Advanced Study.
“It is not just about the magnitude of the corruption, which still needs to be established by impartial courts, but also the manner in which he has responded: by further polarising the nation and inciting social conflict.”
The leaked tapes, which Erdogan insists are fake, surfaced just as the premier appeared to be regaining control over a far-reaching corruption probe launched in December against some of his key allies.
Erdogan characterised the probe as a direct attack by a former ally, the U.S.-exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose associates hold key positions in the police and the judiciary.
The combative premier responded ferociously, sacking hundreds of police and prosecutors and pushing through draconian laws tightening control over the judiciary and the Internet.
But the leaked tapes are the first time that Erdogan, who turned 60 last week, has been directly implicated.
The scandal has played out like a soap opera across the country, with Turks glued to Twitter in anticipation of new revelations.
In the first and most spectacular recording, a voice purporting to be that of Erdogan is heard telling his son Bilal to dispose of large sums of cash stashed in several houses.
“There is 30 million euros ($41 million) more,” Bilal responds at one point.
Erdogan has remained defiant, describing the tapes as fake and “vile” and “immoral” montage concocted by the so-called Gulenists.
Opinion polls show the scandal is hurting the AKP, whose image had already been dented by mass antigovernment protests in June.
A January survey by the Metropoll research company showed support for the AKP at 36.3 percent, far below the 50 percent it garnered in 2011’s parliamentary elections.
Erdogan however can still call on a huge following, particularly among poorer and more pious voters.
“We have built 17,000 kilometres of roads,” he boasted during a rally in the eastern city of Sivas last month. “Could you do that in a country where corruption is widespread?”
“Stand tall, don’t bow,” the crowd called back, saying they were “ready to die” for him.
The tapes prompted fresh calls for the beleaguered government to resign, with Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, calling the prime minister the “prime thief.”
Thousands of people have taken to the streets across the country in protest over the corruption scandal, with police on occasion firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators.
But some believe that Erdogan’s political future, particularly his ambitions to become the president, will ultimately rest on the strength of the economy, which has taken a battering in recent months, partly as a result of the scandal.
“If the economy shrinks, it will definitely affect the presidential election, because economic progress has been the main achievement of Erdogan since 2002,” Ulgen said.
Ates Ilyas Bassoy, author of “Why the AKP wins, why the CHP loses”, said voters may turn a blind eye to corruption allegations as long as the economy does not deteriorate.
“The most honest governments in Turkey’s history were toppled in times of economic crisis,” he said.
“But the most corrupt ones managed to retain their votes if the economy was stable.”