GAZIANTEP, Turkey – A defiant Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out Tuesday at a “vile attack” against him after the leaking of audio recordings suggesting that he and close family members were implicated in a corruption scandal that has roiled the nation.
Erdogan denounced the recordings as fake and vowed legal action.
Audio of five purported conversations between Erdogan and his son, Bilal, 33, appeared on YouTube late Monday, quickly drawing more than 2 million views on the video-sharing website and going viral across social media.
The conversations — whose authenticity could not be independently verified — appeared to feature the prime minister advising his son to hide large amounts of cash before police raids.
A defiant Erdogan went before the parliament and called the recordings “a vile attack against the prime minister of Turkey.”
The recordings were the latest in a series of revelations in a corruption investigation that has riveted Turkey and embarrassed Erdogan, the nation's most powerful politician.
The taped conversations, allegedly between Erdogan and his son, reportedly took place Dec. 17, when police swooped in on upscale residences in Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul as part of a graft investigation. The inquiry forced the resignation late last year of three Cabinet ministers in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
During a conversation posted on YouTube, Erdogan allegedly warned his son that raids were underway and instructed him to move vast sums of money to “specific places.”
The recordings prompted outrage throughout Turkey as opposition figures called on Erdogan to step down from office. Opposition leaders said the tapes appeared genuine.
“My advice to you: Take a helicopter and flee abroad and resign,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Erdogan, according to Hurriyet Daily News. “Those who rob the state cannot stay in the prime ministry. ... The government has lost its legitimacy.”
Devlet Bahceli, leader of Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), described the recordings as “mind-blowing.”
Erdogan, elected prime minister 11 years ago, still retains considerable popularity despite the scandal and the mass antigovernment protests that erupted across the country last summer. Analysts say there is no chance he will resign. Opposition parties remain relatively weak. However, the scandal could hurt Erdogan’s party in municipal elections.
The corruption case has led to allegations of bid-rigging, bribery and sanctions-breaking deals with neighboring Iran. One episode involved millions of dollars in cash stuffed in shoe boxes.
Critics say Erdogan moved to quash the inquiry by firing thousands of police officers, removing key prosecutors and pushing a slew of controversial laws through the parliament. The government has also sought to tighten Internet controls after a recording surfaced on the Web of Erdogan ordering a television executive to remove content during last year’s wave of antigovernment protests.
Meanwhile, the parliament, dominated by Erdogan’s political party, has tried to rein in the judiciary, prompting criticism that the government seeks to curb judicial independence.
Erdogan’s followers have accused a powerful network linked to a former political ally, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, of being behind the investigation and leaked details. Gulen, who now lives in the United States, has denied any effort to discredit Erdogan.
The latest leaks come as Turkey approaches municipal elections, beginning March 30. The corruption case could hurt Erdogan's party, which rose to power more than a decade ago on a clean-government platform after a severe economic crisis. However, many Turks still credit Erdogan’s leadership for brisk economic growth for much of his tenure in power.
Nonetheless, the scandal has angered many Turks.
“It is so ridiculous, even though we all know all about it [corruption], it still comes as a shock,” said Selin Mengu, a university student in Istanbul.
Johnson is a special correspondent.