Turkish football politics: a mesh of murky politics and alleged corruption

Turkish football politics: a mesh of murky politics and alleged corruption

Turkish football politics: a mesh of murky politics and alleged corruption

Fenerbahçe chairman Aziz Yıldırım salutes the crowd during their ‘Justice rally’ in Istanbul, where the fans were protesting the match-fixing investigation. DHA Photo

A stocky military contractor and football club president convicted on charges of match fixing is emerging as a potent symbol of mounting popular anger against the politicization of Turkey’s judiciary and police force, apparent rampant corruption in the country, secularism and opposition to the country’s powerful, rival Islamist factions.

Aziz Yıldırım seems an unlikely symbol. While he insists that he is innocent and that his conviction is part of a political struggle for power between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and self-exiled Islamic scholar Fethullalh Gülen.

Yıldırım is not without rivals in his ambition to be an undeclared opposition leader as part of his bid to reverse his conviction and the banning of Fenerbahçe from European competitions.

The death of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy who was in a coma since he was hit in the head last May by a police tear gas canister during mass anti-government protests on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, sparked some of the most violent protests since last year’s watershed demonstrations against Erdoğan. The protesters demanded the resignation of the government.

Elvan has also become a symbol of perceived arbitrariness of police brutality and lack of accountability. No police officer has been held responsible for the incident that led to Elvan’s death.

Fenerbahçe and Yıldırım’s ability to mobilize were on display last month when tens, if not hundreds, of thousands marched in Istanbul in the largest anti-government demonstration since last year’s protests on Taksim demanding justice for the club as well as for Turkey at large. Fans chanted “Establish a party, Aziz Yıldırım” and “Thief Tayyip Erdoğan.”

“Enough is enough. We stand against illegality, a gang-led legal system and anti-democratic establishments,” said a lawyer and fervent Fenerbahçe fan who is close to Yıldırım.

Few doubt the corruption allegations or the fact that match fixing is a fixture of Turkish football, but many Turks question the integrity of the legal process and the evidence and believe that the timing of both scandals was highly political.

Yıldırım and his aides shower visitors with a barrage of detail and hand them a 745-page bound volume documenting his defense in what is a murky case in which it is difficult to distinguish fact from assertion. Nevertheless, the legal procedures raise questions irrespective of whether Yıldırım is guilty or not.

Yıldırım was tried in a special court that has since been abolished that only heard cases involving membership in an armed group and economic benefit from acts of violence.

The abolishing of the courts has opened the door to potential retrial of many of its cases, including those against the military which were used in a joint effort by Erdoğan and Gülen to subject Turkey’s powerful military to civilian control. Authorities have released in recent days scores of officers and others, including former chief of general staff General İlker Başbuğ who was sentenced to life in prison on charges of plotting against the government and establishing a terrorist organization.

In an article this week in the Financial Times, Gülen denied involvement in politics and asserted that his network “worked to provide equal opportunity for all, through educational institutions, relief organizations and other civil society projects.”

At the same time, Gülen charged without explicitly naming Erdoğan that “a small group within the government’s executive branch is holding to ransom the entire country’s progress” and was squandering public support with its recent actions, including “a law that gives the justice minister powers to appoint and discipline judges and prosecutors; a bill to curb internet freedoms; and a draft law that would give Turkey’s intelligence agency powers akin to those claimed by dictatorial regimes.”

Gülen appeared to implicitly acknowledge that in two phone calls to Yıldırım in 2011 after the football official turned down an invitation to visit the preacher in his self-exile in the United States. People familiar with the phone calls quote Gülen as telling Yıldırım: “There is nothing bad in my heart against you. I am not involved in this. There might be people who did wrong against you but I am not aware of this if it was my people.”

In an inscription in a book Gülen sent to Yıldırım in between the two phone calls, the preacher wrote: “To Aziz Bey, whom I never had a chance to meet but admire for his activism, righteousness and perseverance. My prayers are with you that your difficult days may pass.”

Yıldırım is nonetheless convinced that the Gülenists sparked the match fixing scandal in a bid to gain control of Fenerbahçe even if he refrains from saying so directly. “It is said that there is a powerful organization within state institutions,” he says referring to the police and the judiciary. “That is seen as dangerous. The Republic of Turkey is a democratic country with a constitution, a separation of powers and a parliamentary system. [Founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk is the face of Turkey. Any strike against this disturbs the public. It’s a real threat according to the public because the government cannot run the country. It seems that this is the situation in Turkey. People can’t trust these institutions. It’s against the public interest. If Cemaat [the Gülenist movement] wants to maintain their organization as a service to the people, they should not just think of themselves but work for the benefit of the public,” he says.

With tensions in Turkey rising, anger is spilling not only on to the streets but also on to the football pitch. Fans of various clubs chant “Erdoğan Thief” during matches.

A derby between Fenerbahçe and Black Sea team Trabzonspor was abandoned on March 10 after fans of Trabzon, once a thriving Ottoman port still known for its legendary football club, its fanatical fans and hot-tempered, explosive inhabitants pelted Istanbul’s players and officials with smoke missiles.

Tension between the two teams has been mounting since the 2010-11 season when Fenerbahçe topped Trabzon on goal difference to win the championship. Fenerbahçe’s triumph was part of the match fixing investigation that led to Yıldırım’s sentencing. “Anarchy starts when justice is over,” said Trabzonspor coach Şenol Güneş after Trabzonspor lost the championship to Fenerbahce.

Trabzon has been in decline since its glorious Ottoman days with maritime trade all but drying up and railroad construction having bypassed it. Sevecen Tunç, a sports historian and author of a book on the social history of football in Trabzon, argues that municipal leaders believe that football can restore the city’s civic pride and ensure that it remains a player on the national stage.

“Trabzon fans believe in Şenol Güneş’s statement. All my friends who were directly involved in the events in the Fenerbahçe game or indirectly supported them quoted him. That is how they legitimize what happened. I am afraid that this violence is just a beginning and will not be limited to football because sociologically, the inhabitants of this city have no agriculture, no industry and no commerce.

The only way they can put Trabzon on the map is football. Trabzon has waited for the Super League championship since 1984-85 and they won it in the 2010-11 season, at least that is what they believe.

This could get dangerously out of control if Yıldırım is not punished and Trabzonspor is not as yet awarded the 2010-11 title,” she says.

The crowd violence was in part sparked by the positioning of sharpshooters on rooftops around Trabzon’s Avni Aker Stadium to protect the Fenerbahçe squad, widely viewed in Trabzon as a pro-government club. Tunç says Trabzon fans took it as a message that “the state was protecting its team and seeing people from Trabzon as terrorists.”