Corruption Operations in Turkey: The Real Question
There is never a dull moment in Turkey. Right now, the crisis is a massive corruption cleanup operation. On December 17, several people close to the government, including sons of three ministers, owners of major construction companies, the CEO of a public bank, bureaucrats, and an Iranian businessman who appears to be at the epicenter of the operations, were detained. At least four cabinet ministers are also implicated by the wiretaps and photographs that have been leaked to the press. Discussing these developments in terms of political parties and personalities is not without merit, but the role of deep-rooted structural problems should not be ignored either.
The Corruption Perceptions Index, the leading global indicator of public sector corruption, developed by Transparency International, gives us an idea of the trend in Turkey regarding corruption, or at least perceptions of corruption. In 2002, when the Justice and Development Party came to power, Turkey ranked 64 out of 102 countries included in the study. In 2013, Turkey ranked 53 out of 177 countries, indicating a significant development in the positive direction. On the other hand, this does not yet put Turkey among the “clean countries” but among those that are partially corrupt. While intangible factors like culture also play a role, one could argue that the form of government and the political system are the main factors why corruption is so difficult to eliminate in the country.
First of all, Turkey is excessively centralized even for a unitary state. A comparison made between Sweden and Turkey by Prof. Güven Sak highlights this point very well: while both Sweden and Turkey are unitary states, 85 percent of public officials in Sweden work in local administration, as opposed to only 15 percent of Turkish public officials. Centralization in Turkey is so extensive that the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Urbanization performs tasks that are normally considered basic municipal functions like issuing zoning permits and changing existing zoning plans. It is not a coincidence that most of the corruption allegations in Turkey are related to the construction sector. The lack of an effective checks-and-balances system is another major challenge. The Political Parties and Election Law gives leaders absolute control over their party organization and their group in the parliament.
This leads to a weak separation of powers, which makes it practically impossible for the legislative (parliament) to control the executive (administration). While the constitutional amendments of 2010 did improve judicial independence, prosecutors and judicial police still feel under government pressure. Even though it now has a dynamic and mature civil society, Turkey has not evolved toward participatory democracy, yet. There is instead a majoritarian political understanding that limits democracy to the ballot box only. The problem extends to the freedom of media as well; self-censorship has become a common practice even among journalists who are part of the so called independent media.
No wonder Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan often asserts he is accountable only to God and the voters during elections. Questions about the current corruption operations in Turkey focus on whether there may be a cabinet reshuffle, how the outcome of the upcoming local elections could be affected, and if Erdoğan can still go ahead with his plans to be elected president next summer. These are important questions, but what really matters in the long run is if Turkey will be able to reform its constitution in such a way that will address the structural issues mentioned above.
Will Turkey stay a highly centralized country where power is concentrated around the executive and with little checks and balances, or will Turkey evolve toward a participatory democracy where some powers are transferred to local administration and the executive is checked not only by a strong parliament, but also by a free media and a dynamic civil society? The answer to this question will have broader implications not only for Turkey’s EU accession process and relations with transatlantic allies, but also on whether Turkey can remain as a source of inspiration for its southern neighbors.
Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı is the director of the German Marshall Fund’s office in Ankara, Turkey.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.