By James M. Dorsey
A massive match-fixing scandal in Turkish soccer has shifted passions from the soccer pitch to politics opening a rift between the country’s president and prime minister, driving a wedge between the president and parliament, and fuelling already heated debate about constitutional reform.
At the heart of the soccer dispute is a controversial draft bill designed to halt corruption and violence in sports that would substantially reduce penalties for match-fixing, prompting President Abdullah Gul, the largely ceremonial head of a soccer-crazy nation, to say that his enthusiasm for the beautiful game has cooled. “Football will never be the same,” quipped Suat Kiniklioglu, a former member of parliament for Mr. Gul’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in his column in Zaman newspaper.
Mr. Gul expressed his disappointment in soccer after vetoing the draft law because the penalties for match-fixing were not strong enough. The legislation would cut jail terms to up to 3 years from 12 years stipulated in a law that only went into effect in April.
Mr. Gul, a founder of the AKP and former foreign minister who is likely to return to active politics when his term ends in 2014, said the proposed changes encouraged a perception that the law was being amended to serve the interests of particular people rather than the country’s interest. "The impression was created in public opinion that the reform was directed at individuals involved in an on-going investigation rather than emerging out of necessity," Mr. Gul said.
The president and his backers, who include the powerful Islamic Gulen movement, headed by self-exiled, Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is believed to own Zaman, see the law as part of a broader campaign to clean up Turkish society. They argue that the match fixing scandal involves huge sums of money and is closely linked to organised crime.
Mr. Gul’s rejection garnered support from a number of AKP deputies, including Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, willing in a rare display of dissent to break ranks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who controls the party with an iron fist. Recovering from abdominal surgery, Mr. Erdogan cracked the whip from his bed in defiance of the president’s veto, issuing a statement that called on deputies to pass the law as is.
Under Turkish law, if parliament votes as it probably will a second time in favour of the law, Mr. Gul’s last resort would be to challenge the legislation in the Constitutional Court. Mr. Gul has hinted that he may do that, but many analysts think that is unlikely. “My guess is that Gül will not take it to the Constitutional Court, and that it will become legislation. President Gül is very sensitive about Parliament’s legislating role,” Mr. Kiniklioglu said.
The political rift within the AKP erupted as an İstanbul court indicted 93 people, including Turkey's top soccer officials, on charges of match-fixing in the country’s worst soccer scandal. The case touches most of Turkey’s leading clubs. Some 30 players and officials have been in jail pending trial since the scandal broke in July, throwing Turkey’s multi-billion dollar soccer league into turmoil.
In the case of crowned but disgraced Fenerbahce Spor Kulubu, the prosecutor is seeking for its chairman, Aziz Yildirim, who doubled as deputy head of the Turkish Football Federation, a 132-year jail sentence. Fenerbahce has been stripped of its league title and banned from European club competition as a result of the scandal.
The soccer rift is shining a spotlight on the inner workings of the AKP and raising the spectre of a succession battle within the party, sparking questions about the apparent sway of soccer bosses and their corporate backers over politicians and fuelling debate about the rule of law in Turkey and the need for constitutional reform.
For now, Mr. Erdogan appears to have reasserted his control with deputies who had been willing to oppose the draft bill crawling back into the woodwork. The Wall Street Journal identified AKP deputy Samil Tayyer as a case in point. Mr. Tayyer initially supported Mr. Gul’s veto and vowed to resign if the law was passed. Following Mr. Erdogan’s statement, he has changed his position, according to the Journal, and will simply abstain from voting.
Nonetheless, the rift raises questions on whether AKP can retain its popularity and party discipline when Mr. Erdogan is not around to impose his will and prevent cracks from surfacing. The prime minister is widely believed to want to succeed Mr. Gul as president when his third term as prime minister ends in 2014. Critics charge that Mr. Erdogan sees constitutional reform as a way to shift power from the prime minister to the president in advance of his becoming Turkey’s head of state.
“This is a country where the most problematic branch of government remains the judiciary. Our laws are not just, are often not implemented and at times are wrongly drafted. There is no sense that justice is being delivered. A major overhaul is needed. The first place to begin is the Constitution. The Turkish people expect Parliament to draft a new constitution,” Mr. Kinikliogu wrote.
In supporting opposition to the reduction of penalties for match-fixing, the Gulen movement has signalled that it will continue its support for AKP, but could well side with elements in the party eager to curb Mr. Erdogan’s hitherto unchallenged grip. The prime minister has earned domestic and international praise for his presiding over years of tremendous economic growth and positioning Turkey as a regional and international power house.
Privately, however, critics within his party complain about Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic streak, his measures against the media that have made Turkey one of the world’s largest incarcerator of journalists and his emotionalism that has prompted him at times to narrow Turkey’s options.
These critics point as an example to Mr. Erdogan’s downgrading of relations with Israel and suspension of military cooperation in response to last year’s Mavi Marmara incident in which nine Turkish nationals were killed when Israel prevented the Turkish aid ship from breaking its blockade of the Gaza Strip. The critics argue that the prime minister’s response hinders Turkey’s efforts to position itself as a bridge across the East-West divide divide as well as the Middle East’s fault lines.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.