Turkish rigging case a precursor to graft probe rocking gov't

Turkish rigging case a precursor to graft probe rocking gov't

Turkish rigging case a precursor to graft probe rocking govt

Supporters of leading Turkish football club Fenerbahçe welcome the club’s president, Aziz Yıldırım, on Jan 21 upon his arrival in Istanbul, soon after a high court confirmed his six-year prison term. AA photo

When Aziz Yıldırım, the head of Turkey’s foremost football club, Fenerbahçe SK, denounced this week an appeals court decision upholding his conviction in a massive match-fixing scandal, he drew a parallel with a construction-related corruption scandal that is rocking the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and pitting the country’s foremost Islamist factions against one another. 

Mr. Yıldırım’s comparison stands on strong ground despite the fact that most experts on Turkish football as well as fans, including those of Fenerbahçe, concede that Turkish football is thoroughly corrupt and that match-fixing is a fact of life. Mr. Yıldırım was sentenced to six years and three months in prison and is barred from serving as a club official. He has one last chance to appeal which would allow him to remain in office until he has exhausted his options.

In a statement following the court decision, Mr. Yıldırım suggested the verdict was part of a power struggle between Mr. Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, the prime minister’s Islamist ally-turned-nemesis. Mr. Erdoğan has accused Mr. Gülen, a self-exiled Islamist preacher who operates a global media, education and business empire estimated to be worth $20 billion, of establishing a state within the state.

Mr. Gülen initially supported Mr. Erdoğan’s rise to power and worked with him to bring the powerful Turkish military under civilian control. The two men’s political and commercial power base is inextricably intertwined but their interests have over time diverged as Mr. Gülen targeted urban conservatives while Mr. Erdoğan strengthened his hold on the rural vote. In a prelude to the construction scandal, Mr. Erdoğan attempted last fall to curb Mr. Gülen’s influence by announcing that he would shut down tutoring schools operated by the preacher’s movement.

The high stakes power struggle between the two men, already evident in the match fixing scandal, moved into high gear in December when an investigation by the police and judiciary, believed to be populated by supporters of Mr. Gülen, into a construction-related corruption scandal forced four of the prime minister’s ministers to resign and a reshuffle of Mr. Erdoğan’s cabinet. Mr. Gülen has denied any association with the investigation.

Timing raises questions

Many in Turkey nonetheless give credit to the corruption allegations but believe that the timing of the arrests raises questions about the independence of the police and the judiciary. 

Those qualms are certain to be discussed during Mr. Erdoğan’s visit this week to Brussels and the European Union designed to give a new boost to Turkey’s EU membership bid.

Mr. Erdoğan has charged that the investigation was an attempt to undermine him in advance of crucial municipal elections in March that are widely expected to be interpreted as a referendum on his increasingly troubled rule. At stake in the battle with Mr. Gülen and the elections that are to be followed by Turkey’s first ever direct election of its president is not only Mr. Erdoğan’s political future but also history’s initial judgment of moderate political Islam’s foremost foray into government. Mr. Erdoğan, whose status as the successful embodiment of moderate political Islam has suffered a series of setbacks that started with last June’s mass anti-government Gezi Park protests, risks seeing his reputation irreparably damaged.

Much like in the match-fixing scandal, Mr. Erdoğan has sought to limit the political fallout of the construction scandal by cleansing institutions of his opponents and seeking to control the legal process. Up to 2,000 police officers have been either relieved of their duties or moved to other jobs in recent weeks as have prosecutors who ordered the detention of three sons of ministers as well as the head of state-owned Halkbank. Among the prosecutors shoved aside is Zekeriya Öz, the man who initiated the investigation into the match fixing scandal.

“I, Aziz Yıldırım, do not respect this illegal judgment, I do not recognize this political decision,” Mr. Yıldırım said. His statement was echoed by Mr. Erdoğan who described the appeals court decision as a political manoeuvre in advance of the municipal elections.

Mr. Yıldırım was first sentenced to jail in 2012 and fined some 500,000 euros for match-fixing during the 2010-2011 season and of forming a criminal gang, but was freed pending his appeal.

Mr. Erdoğan, a former football player and Fenerbahçe fan, has fought hard in the past 2.5 years to spare Mr. Yıldırım the worst. He viewed the corruption charges against the football boss as an effort by Mr. Gülen, a man some prominent players consult before deciding to switch clubs, to muscle his way into what the prime minister considered his political domain. Mr. Gülen was believed to have wanted Mr. Yıldırım removed so that someone closer to him could take control of the club.

In standing up for Mr. Yıldırım, Mr. Erdoğan hoped to garner support among millions of fans of Fenerbahçe, the crown political jewel in Turkish football. Many of those fans however joined supporters of Istanbul arch rivals Beşiktaş JK and Galatasary SK in manning the front lines last June in mass anti-government demonstrations. Mr. Erdoğan’s government has since sought to criminalize militant fan groups. If the degree of Mr. Erdoğan’s success in seeking to shield Mr. Yıldırım is any indication, the jury remains out on whether he can insulate himself from personal involvement in the construction corruption scandal that involves the awarding of large public works to groups close to the government, amendments to zoning laws that favored those groups and patronage politics that generated funding for the prime minister’s political machinery.

Mr. Yıldırım was convicted despite Mr. Erdoğan’s manipulations that initially lead to the football club chairman’s acquittal by the Turkish Football Federation (TFF). That however did not stop supporters of Mr. Gülen in the judiciary from pursuing the matter. It also did not prevent European football governing body UEFA from banning Fenerbahçe from European tournaments for two years on charges of match fixing.

Nevertheless, Mr. Erdoğan’s intervention was in many ways a dry run for his effort to manage the construction scandal, which catapulted him into becoming the third most important leader in modern Turkish history after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the visionary who carved Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, and Turgut Özal, the conservative politician who liberalized its economy and was the only politician prior to Mr. Erdoğan to successfully stand up to the military.

As Mr. Yıldırım and 92 others were indicted on match fixing-related charges, Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Gülen adopted diametrically opposed positions. Mr. Gülen’s position constituted an early indication that he was ready to challenge Mr. Erdoğan’s grip on power.

While Mr. Gülen and his supporters pushed for harsh sentences, Mr. Erdoğan forced a law through Parliament that limited the penalties for both officials and clubs. The law prevented Mr. Yıldırım from being sentenced to tens of years in prison. The TFF meanwhile rejected a proposal backed by the prime minister that would have shielded clubs guilty of match fixing from being relegated.

Three months later, Mr. Erdoğan succeeded in getting the federation to clear Fenerbahçe as a club and 15 others of charges of match-fixing. His interference prompted the TFF’s three top officials, including its vice chairman, Göksel Gümüşdağ, a brother-in-law of Mr. Erdoğan, to resign.