Corruption scandal will consolidate Turkish democracy

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt

Date posted: December 23, 2013


Right off the bat, I would like to say this: Don’t let your heart be troubled much by what has been happening in Turkey recently. When all the dust settles in the aftermath of corruption, money laundering and racketeering involving higher-ups in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), we will have the chance to lay the foundation for a democracy by consensus, which is the only way to rule a large country like Turkey with a relatively young population and rising middle class.

Any other scenario would create more polarization and tension, making the country very difficult to govern, no matter who comes to power.

I suppose Turks may have to learn to live with governments that are not led by such charismatic leaders who dominate the agenda, but rather by a coalition of professional politicians who take into account different constituencies and interests before reaching a compromise solution on national issues. There is always an opportunity in every crisis, and that is what Turks will discover at the end of the current government scandal over corruption. This will teach us the urgent need for more transparency in public decision-making as well as greater accountability in government and will prompt Turkey to adopt a series of reforms to make sure past problems will not be repeated.

One thing is for sure, representative democracy based on a ballot box mandate every four years is no longer enough for Turks who aspire to have a truly representative government. Naturally, citizens of this country want to be fully informed and engaged in what their government is doing. They want to feel that their opinions matter, not just when they go to polling stations on election day, but between elections throughout the decision-making processes of political players. That is the lesson the nation will extract from the most recent crisis, ultimately making Turkey stronger than ever before.

As for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, he blew his chance when he made a series of fatal mistakes beginning in 2011. The last one, the vast corruption dragnet sweeping up many at the highest levels that has become the largest scandal in the Turkish Republic’s history, is perhaps the deadliest one for him. Since Erdoğan helped to establish his ruling AKP on the centerpiece of a corruption-free government, he will likely not recover from this outrageous scandal. The hard evidence and bitter truth will prevail over any efforts by Erdoğan in his bid to try and stay ahead of the waves with a damage control campaign. Even if Erdoğan succeeds in derailing the investigation with a flagrant abuse of government powers, the allegations of corruption will always continue to hang over his head and anybody associated with the ruling party. As a result, he has turned himself and his band of brothers in graft into a liability rather than a winning ticket for the party.

Of course, the main worry is how much damage Erdoğan might inflict on the nation as he goes down in history as the man under whose watch the country witnessed the largest-ever corruption case. Erdoğan threatened to expel the US envoy on Saturday after his close aides cooked up completely fabricated stories that the US had been involved in the corruption probe and had this tale run on the front pages of pro-government dailies, plastering pictures of US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone there. That, in itself, shows that he is willing to burn bridges, even with Turkey’s key ally and strategic partner. This spells danger for Turkish national security, given that Erdoğan had already head-butted half a dozen state leaders in Turkey’s neighborhood, jamming Turkish foreign policy into tight box.

On the domestic front, the collateral damage will be felt in further polarization in society and rising risk premiums in the economy. Erdoğan has given all the indications that he wants to run a war campaign to quash opposition groups, be they liberals, social democrats, nationalists or even conservative groups like the Hizmet (Gülen) movement that endorsed him in the past. He has already started to exploit state powers to implement his battle plan by arranging for the summary removal of hundreds of public officials, most in the police force, with no reasonable justification. He has been bending laws or even circumventing and violating legislative and constitutional articles to get what he wants.

In the economy, the mismanagement of the graft probe has already cost the nation, shaking foreign investors’ confidence in the very foundations of the country’s justice system with meddlesome tactics. Even well-respected economy czar Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan was heard uttering the words “chaos lobby,” suggesting that this mysterious group was behind the probe, when speaking from the podium in Parliament late Friday night during the budget debate. That was more troubling news than when Babacan said that state-lender Halkbank has lost share value amounting to some $1.6 billion. Babacan knew the international risks involved when he allowed the state lender to continue payment processing for Iran on behalf of other clients such as India, and he was also aware of the dangers when the bank engaged in gold for trade deals that annoyed the Americans. I suppose Babacan should take comfort from the testimony of Halkbank General Manager Süleyman Aslan, who revealed in his court testimony during his arraignment that he had earned the country $3.6 billion from the gold trade.

The war of attrition Erdoğan has unleashed against people who disagree with him on the way the corruption investigation is being handled will deal still more blows to Erdoğan himself and to the party. This war is simply not sustainable, given that the AKP government will surely face a series of legal challenges in the coming days and weeks. Despite its shortcomings, we still have a relatively independent and impartial judiciary, thanks to the 2010 public referendum that overhauled the justice system and created a more democratic and pluralistic structure. That is why Erdoğan threatened the judiciary on Sunday by saying that he will use his parliamentary majority to make the legislative changes necessary to save his government from legal troubles. That is not easy to do, however, given that the Constitutional Court may strike down any piece of legislation deemed in clear violation of constitutional articles.

Erdoğan’s hatred and anger may leave scars on groups that are targeted on the domestic front, especially the Hizmet movement, which did not pick the fight but which was compelled to defend itself against escalating attacks from the Erdoğan government on institutions affiliated with the group. Since Hizmet is not a political force but rather represents perhaps the strongest civic movement and is powerful at the grassroots level, it can easily bounce back and collect itself in the face of the government assault. The day of reckoning was probably inevitable, given that Erdoğan’s creeping political Islam ideology recognizes no compromise whatsoever. The moderate and compromise-seeking values and ideals promoted by Hizmet are not compatible with what a politically charged Islamist ideology represents: a more confrontational and discriminatory approach.

There is no need to be pessimistic, however. Things will eventually get back to normal in Turkey when Erdoğan is compelled to realize that he can no longer sustain beating the war drums through elections, as the opposition picks up speed on what seems to be genuine outreach activities. As more damaging revelations will likely emerge of AKP cronies siphoning off money from contracts and tenders, Erdoğan will have no choice but to back down to save what is left for him. On a positive note, these scandals will help cleanse the state and contribute to consolidating Turkish democracy further, with strong checks and balances to be introduced to the Turkish state system. From the terrible ordeal of an authoritarian system of government under Erdoğan, Turks will draw important lessons that will be translated into reform steps to shore up democracy in Turkey. Better governance, pluralism and a more effective use of consultation mechanisms will inevitably prevail at the end of the day.

In the meantime, the opposition will continue to pound the AKP on the largest corruption case in Turkish history in the lead-up to elections. This will not only weaken the AKP but will knock it out of the game, for sure. The only defense the AKP can mount is to amputate the diseased limbs from the party so that the main body can be saved. That seems very unlikely, however, given that the AKP is a leader-dominated party and not institutionalized with strong democratic traditions of succession and compromise. Erdoğan will fight to the end with lots of foot soldiers behind him as deciding delegates. Then, the likely scenario is that the AKP will split under heavy public pressure and opposition criticism. Erdoğan’s blistering speeches and demonization of others will only precipitate his fall.

Source: Today's Zaman , December 23, 2013

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