Murky Turkish football politics mesh with massive graft scandal

Murky Turkish football politics mesh with massive graft scandal

Murky Turkish football politics mesh with massive graft scandal

The fans of Fenerbahçe opens posters in support of Fenerbahçe chairman Aziz Yıldırım, who is appealing a conviction on match fixing charges, during a match in Istanbul between Fenerbahçe and Torku Konyaspor. AA photo

Always murky, Turkish football politics have become even murkier of late, as a politics-laden match-fixing scandal meshes with a corruption investigation targeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his closest associates.

The defendants in both scandals –Erdoğan and the management of one of Turkey’s most storied clubs – portray the allegations against them as part of a power struggle between the prime minister and a self-exiled scholar, who heads one of the world’s most formidable Islamist movements.

To tens of thousands of anti-government protesters mobilized last Sunday (Feb. 16) by fans of Istanbul’s Fenerbahçe Spor Kulübü for the largest anti-government demonstration since last June’s Gezi Park protests on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the two scandals are expressions of a growing rot in Turkish politics and society. The protesters called for justice, not only for Fenerbahçe, but for all of Turkey. They expressed support for Fenerbahçe chairman Aziz Yıldırım, who is appealing a conviction on match fixing charges, and denounced Erdoğan as a thief.

Gezi Park protests, the largest in Erdoğan’s decade in office, in which football fans played a key role, the march on Feb. 16 reflected growing public anger at a prime minister who has become increasingly authoritarian. 

Few doubt that Turkish football is riddled with match-fixing and hampered by incestuous relationships with politics. That was no more evident when Yıldırım was indicted along with 92 others for match-fixing two years ago. Yıldırım, who has denied the charges, was sentenced to six years in prison and is now engaged in his final appeal. He could be put behind bars for several years and banned for life from professional football. Fans chanted “Establish a [political] party, Aziz Yıldırım” and “Thief Tayyip Erdoğan,” a slogan often heard during Fenerbahçe matches, even though the club has long been viewed as nationalist. The denunciation of Erdoğan contradicted Yıldırım’s implicit suggestions that the prime minister’s Islamist rival, Fethullah Gülen, manipulated the court verdicts. Gülen, who heads a global educational empire and owns some of Turkey’s most influential media, is believed to have significant sway in Turkey’s judiciary and police force.

Battle to handle scandal

A battle two years ago between Erdoğan and Gülen over how to handle the match fixing scandal effectively amounted to a struggle for control over Fenerbahçe, the crown political jewel in Turkish football because of its tens of millions of supporters.  

“As I said from the very beginning, the court case regarding match-fixing in Turkey is a political case, and the ruling of this case has also been made politically. I do not respect or recognize this court,” Yıldırım said last month after losing his first appeal. Fenerbahçe issued a press release this week peppered with quotes of Erdoğan’s pointing the finger at Gülen’s alleged control of the judiciary.

“We would like to declare to global public opinion that the only truth lying before Turkey in the aftermath of this operation, which now lacks any sense of legitimacy, is that the right to fair trial, in accordance with the European Convention of Human Rights and the judgments and decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, is a must for all of Turkey and, in particular, Fenerbahçe Sports Club,” the club said in its statement.

The divergence of opinion on Erdoğan, a Fenerbahçe member and former football player, between fans and the club’s management reflects the corruption scandal’s rekindling of widespread public discontent that exploded last summer on Taksim Square.

Erdoğan initially came to office with a record of being clean in a country where politicians are perceived to be corrupt. As a result of the latest corruption scandal, he is at risk of losing that aura.

Erdoğan portrays the corruption scandal - which has implicated the sons of three ministers and the head of a state-owned bank alongside prominent businessmen with government ties and could embroil the prime minister’s son - as a power grab by a “state within the state,” a reference to Gülen. 

The two men joined forces early in Erdoğan’s rule in successfully subjecting Turkey’s powerful military to civilian supervision. Gülen and Erdoğan have since gradually parted ways, as they appealed for support to different segments of conservative Turkish society. The case of Yıldırım, a defense contractor with long-standing ties to the government, has been enmeshed in politics since day one. Erdoğan drove a bill through Parliament that limited punishment for match fixing immediately. Gülen was believed to have viewed the match fixing scandal as an opportunity to replace Yıldırım with someone closer to his Cemaat movement.

Three months later, Erdoğan got the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) to clear Fenerbahçe and others of charges of match-fixing. It took the eruption of the broader construction and public works scandal for Erdoğan to remove prosecutors and police officers who he believed were associated with Gülen.
The controversial TFF decision came three months after the football body, against Erdoğan’s wishes, rejected a proposal that would have shielded clubs guilty of match fixing from being relegated. Then the TFF’s three top officials, including its vice chairman, Göksel Gümüşdağ, a brother-in-law of Erdoğan, to resign.

The prime minister has, in recent days, rammed legislation that gives the government greater control over the judiciary and Internet. “The judiciary has been used as a weapon against all the opposition, no matter what field of social life it is coming from. We stand against illegality, a gang-led legal system and anti-democratic establishments,” said a lawyer and fervent Fenerbahçe fan.