Will Sedat Peker reveal ties between Erdoğan and the mafia?

Exiled Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker has rocked Turkish politics for weeks with videos alleging sordid dealings between government officials and the criminal underworld.

In his eighth video published on YouTube on May 30, Peker turned his attention to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after carefully avoiding any direct mention of the Turkish leader. In response to Erdoğan saying that Peker would be brought to trial, the mobster said that would not change the truth behind his words.

Interestingly, Peker mentioned a personal history with Erdoğan without elaborating but promised to refer to them directly in a video after June 14. This leaves a big question mark over what details Peker could divulge about the president or how anything he says will resound across a country hooked on the mobster’s words.

Marta Ottaviani, a journalist who wrote a book detailing the political rise of Erdoğan, said that state-mafia allegations are nothing new in Turkey.

“Erdoğan tries to present himself as something new in the political arena but behaves in the same way as politicians in the past,” Ottaviani told Ahval News editor Nicholas Morgan in a podcast.

Ottaviani, whose book The Reis: How Erdoğan Changed Turkey delves into the president’s background, described how Erdoğan became a rising star for the political Islamic movement. Through a combination of pragmatism and sheer ambition, she said that Erdoğan possessed a keen political instinct for building the right relationships and using them to further his goals of charting a new course for Turkey.

However, Ottaviani notes that Erdoğan’s early life prior to his entry onto the Turkish political scene is still full of gaps.

“Unfortunately, there are not very reliable sources of information about the first years of Erdoğan,” she said.

On the website for the Turkish presidency, there is little detail about Erdoğan’s life prior to politics, beyond mentions of a love for football and which schools he graduated from. Born in Istanbul in 1954, Erdoğan spent his early years in the Black Sea coastal town of Rize where his father worked in the Turkish Coast Guard. Ottaviani said that he was known to be close to his mother Tenzile but described his father Ahmet as “a very tough man” and a “very severe father”.

In the 1970s, Turkey’s Black Sea region was where Turkish organised crime and a number of its future scions first emerged. Noted mafioso Alaatin Cakici was born not far away from Rize near the port city of Trabzon.

Despite rising to prominence during a period when the Turkish mafia took shape and evolved, Ottaviani said that there is no proof that Erdoğan or his family were involved with these criminal elements. She described Erdoğan as “very careful” at making the right relationships with emerging businessmen early in his political career, including those who would finance his future campaigns, and among these were some from his home region along the Black Sea.

“We know that a lot of controversial businessmen and mafia organisations come from the Black Sea region, the so-called Black Sea mafia, so this would not only be a coincidence,” she said.

“I cannot say that Erdoğan had personal relations with these mafia leaders, but of course we can say that he has always been very careful in dealing with them.”

Ottaviani said accusations of corruption have been a constant feature of Erdoğan’s political career since he was mayor of Istanbul during the 1990s. At the time, she said that Turkish newspapers commonly featured articles questioning a public tender system, known as the pool system, operated by Erdoğan’s administration.

This bidding process for municipal projects frequently provided favours to businessmen or donors close to the Islamist-leaning Welfare Party that Erdoğan was a part of. Similar allegations have been made against Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), particularly related to dealings in the construction sector.  

What separated Erdoğan from previous Turkish politicians was the sense among many Turks, even those cautious about his politics, that he was improving their livelihoods during his two decades in power.

That track record could allow him to survive charges thrown at him by Peker in any upcoming videos, Ottaviani said. But at the same time, she said that any serious and convincing charges of corruption against Erdoğan would come at a time of severe economic travails in Turkey, putting him in possibly the most difficult position of his political career.

“We will see how this will be in the future because the Turkish economy is doing very badly and Erdoğan coped with the COVID-19 pandemic very badly,” said Ottaviani.

“I’m sure the next election will be the most difficult of Erdoğan’s career.”