By Jonny Hogg and Gulsen Solaker
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday local elections had given him a mandate to “liquidate” the enemies he sees as contriving a corruption scandal and would go after their international activities and sources of funding.
In his first parliamentary speech since his ruling AK Party dominated March 30 municipal polls, Erdogan said “traitors” responsible for a stream of graft allegations and the illegal tapping of thousands of phones would be brought to account.
Erdogan accuses Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally now based in the United States, of orchestrating the graft scandal to undermine him. Gulen’s Hizmet network claims millions of followers and holds influence in the police and judiciary.
Erdogan has accused the movement of running a “parallel state”, spying on thousands of government officials over years and leaking manipulated recordings in a bid to unseat him ahead of last month’s elections.
“March 30 is the day when the page was turned on tutelage, when the monuments of hubris were felled, and the privileges (of an elite) were lost forever,” Erdogan said.
“The nation gave us a mandate for the liquidation of the parallel state. We will not have the slightest hesitation. We shall never forget the betrayal,” he said.
He said the government would follow up on what he called the network’s international links and investigate all “illegally collected monies and donations”.
The movement, also known as Cemaat (JEH-maat), “The Community”, has for decades been a spearhead of Turkish cultural influence and commerce overseas, especially in the assertive moves into Africa, the Middle East and Asia in the years after the AK Party took power in 2002.
Cemaat says the Turkish government is already putting pressure on governments to close down its global network of schools which have been a major source of influence and revenue. Government officials say Turkish embassies have stopped backing schools and business linked to Gulen.
Hizmet denies using followers in the police and judiciary to launch a graft inquiry targeting Erdogan family members, ministers and businessmen, or any involvement in the illicit recording of top officials.
Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party relied on Hizmet to break the grip on politics of the army, which carried out three coups between 1960 and 1980 and forced an Islamist-led government from power in 1997. But he now casts the fight with Hizmet as a continuation of that struggle against tutelage in any form, the final chapter in a battle for democracy and justice.
“They will answer before the courts. But not in front of their parallel courts; they will answer before the court of the nation,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan has made little secret of his ambition to take up a powerful presidency, but such is his determination to finish the battle with Gulen that it remains unclear whether he will run in the first direct elections for the post in August.
He is barred by AK Party rules from standing for a fourth term as prime minister, currently a more powerful role than the largely ceremonial presidency; but the party could amend those rules with relative ease if it feels his leadership is needed to see out the feud with Gulen, senior officials have said.
Erdogan would seek to shape the presidency as a more powerful role than that played by incumbent Abdullah Gul. Erdogan was quoted on Tuesday as saying the direct election of the next president would automatically bestow the role with greater powers.
“The responsibilities will be different after these elections. It will not be a president of protocol, but one that sweats, runs around, works hard,” he was quoted as saying by the pro-government Sabah newspaper.
Until now, Turkey’s parliament has elected the head of state. Gul is a close Erdogan ally and co-founder of the AK Party, tipped as a possible prime minister if Erdogan were to run for what he would shape as the top job.
Erdogan had long wanted to change the constitution and create an executive presidency, but political opposition to such a move has checked those plans for now.
There are also some doubts that Erdogan, for all his popularity among conservative AK Party voters, could win the 50 percent plus he would need in a second round as he is a divisive figure who would struggle to pick up opposition support.
Erdogan’s opponents fear that his election to the presidency could exacerbate what they see as his authoritarian tendencies.
The government has already dismissed or reassigned thousands of police officers and tightened control over the Internet and judiciary in response to the corruption scandal.
It also blocked access to Twitter and YouTube after audio recordings, purportedly showing corruption inErdogan’s inner circle, were leaked on social media. Reuters has not been able to verify their authenticity.
The block on Twitter was lifted after the constitutional court ruled that it breached freedom of expression – a decision Erdogan said on Tuesday was wrong and should be overturned – while YouTube still remains largely blocked.