RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Turkey's government is defending itself against a corruption scandal. That scandal has shaken a nation often described as the model for moderate Islamic democracy. The scandal reaches the highest levels of the government, and has sparked a strong backlash by Turkey's ruling party.
We reached NPR's correspondent in Istanbul, Peter Kenyon, to learn more about what's going on.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: On December 17th, police raided some very fashionable and high-rent homes, and they took away Cabinet minister's sons and they confiscated money. They took away a well-known bank director. And the government immediately reacted by saying this is a political attack against the government. And so now Turks are left wondering: What is going on here? Are we seeing, finally, some moves against corruption, which doesn't happen very often? Or are we seeing a political fight between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and one of his key allies?
MONTAGNE: So the government and the prime minister think this is an attack on them. It's all political. But what about the allegations themselves, the corruption allegations. Is there anything to them?
KENYON: Well, that is the giant question. The details are sketchy at this point because the government has moved to clamp down on the investigation. We do know that there was a shoebox containing millions allegedly taken from the home of the bank director who was detained. One of the Cabinet minister's sons allegedly had a money counting machine in his home, supposedly for counting bribes in connection with government contract awards. And we've seen an Azari financier arrested and suspected of funneling millions of dollars to Iran, despite international sanctions.
Now, we don't know more, because the government has moved to sack some prosecutors, including the chief prosecutor in one of the probes. They reassigned police. And we're seeing, in media accounts now, that the biggest of these investigations may be effectively stalled.
MONTAGNE: Turkey has been a remarkably stable and reasonably moderate government over the years, but has been running into problems in these last few years. Its neighbor is Syria. There's that conflict regime right next door. Where does the scandal leave Turkey, as a regional player?
KENYON: Well, Turkey's image as an oasis of stability in a very difficult region, I'd say, was already shaken somewhat, largely by the failure of its Syria policy, which is seen as blind to the dangers posed by extremists fighters crossing the border into Syria.
MONTAGNE: It's been behind the rebels, sort of regardless of who they are.
KENYON: Very strongly anti the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and very strongly in favor of the rebel fighters, including Islamist units that have been moving freely back and forth across the border. And now analysts say the impact of the scandal could be to distract Erdogan at a time when he should be focusing on regional problems, number one being the Syria crisis, but also the Kurdish peace process. That may be his biggest legacy of all, ending a 30-year conflict.
MONTAGNE: What, then, do you think the political fallout, come the New Year, is going to be in all of this?
KENYON: That's what everyone is focusing on now, because we've got elections coming up in March. They're local elections, but it will be the first signal of how seriously the voters are taking these corruption allegations, and to what extent they like or dislike Prime Minister Erdogan's increasingly autocratic style of governing in recent years.
Then we're going to have parliamentary and presidential elections. And by the end of those, we will find out if this ruling AK Party, with its roots in political Islam, will continue to be the most successful such party anywhere running a democracy. Or will it fall apart, split the religious vote, and will the secular opposition have a chance to claw its way back into contention?
MONTAGNE: Peter Kenyon is NPR's correspondent in Istanbul. Thanks for joining us.
KENYON: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.