Corruption, Elections and Political Turmoil: Is more ahead for Turkey?

2013-06-16 01.16.08
Protests in June 2013. Source: Digdem Soyaltin.

In a recent article, Marko Klasnja and Joshua A. Tucker provide evidence from the experiments in Moldova and Sweden to show there is a relationship between the economic perceptions of the voters and their reactions to corruption in their respective countries [gated version, ungated version]. They argue that in low corruption countries such as Sweden, voters punish the corrupt politicians in the elections regardless of the state of the economy. However, in high-corruption countries such as Moldova, voters tend to be less concerned about corruption when they are satisfied with the government’s economic policy performance. I wouldn’t hesitate to add Turkey to the group of high corruption countries, especially after the corruption investigations started in December 2013, revealing illicit money transfers to Iran and bribery for construction projects. Some have called the charges the biggest corruption scandal of Turkish Republican history. Very briefly, Turkish police seized shoeboxes stashed with $4.5 million in cash at the home of a state-owned bank’s chief executive and arrested sons of four cabinet ministers and several high-profile businessmen.

In the critical local elections on 30th of March, voters delivered another resounding victory for the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Prime Minister and the leader of the Justice and Development Party, despite the corruption investigation seriously challenging his administration. The party bagged just over 45% of the vote and Ankara and Istanbul remained under AKP control. Similar to Berlusconi, who managed to ride out numerous scandals, Erdoğan succeeded in gaining another victory and increased the share of his votes in comparison to the 2009 local elections. Yet, he lost a close ally.

It is argued that the corruption charges came as a result of the rift between the Erdoğan government and the Hizmet movement, led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose followers have allegedly occupied positions in the police and the judiciary. Erdoğan has labeled the so-called Gülenists a “parallel state” and has purged thousands of police officers and hundreds of prosecutors, reminiscent of the massive lustration (purification) processes we witnessed in a number of post-communist countries. Lustration can be defined as the systematic process of vetting and removing public officials affiliated with repressive regimes to “purify” institutions and society during transition. Lustration was prominent during the transition processes of the post-communist and Eastern European nations such as Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. In these countries, many civil servants were fired and/or replaced in the years after the fall of communism.

Scholars have shown that the process could result in the state institutions being opened up and placed under democratic control, which could pave the way for a fundamental renewal of state institutions (see here).

Yet, in Turkey, the government’s recent attempts to override checks and balances and erode the mechanisms of separation of powers, clearly signal that the ongoing lustration process won’t pave the way for the establishment of strong control mechanisms and consolidation of democracy. Similarly, the anti-corruption reforms, which were recently introduced in line with the EU membership requirements and demands coming from the IMF and World Bank did not turn into a real fight against corruption. Succeeding a corrupt coalition government after the 2002 elections, the AKP immediately took action against corruption and introduced an Emergency Action Plan in 2003. Reforms continued with the adoption of legal measures incriminating corruption and related offences and restructuring the law enforcement agencies. These improvements notwithstanding, corruption remains a serious problem. In several surveys the level of perceived corruption seems to be even increased between 2007 and 2010. Yet, the anti-corruption reforms have become quite handy for the AKP government in pleasing the external donors and securing large parts of the electoral support. The party won six consecutive election victories in a row. The strategic use of the anti-corruption reforms created new rent-seeking coalitions, consolidating the power of the government.

The fight against corruption is a complex task which requires coalitions of various actors. One necessary factor, absent in Turkey, is the public mobilization for anti-corruption policies which can put pressure on the political elites from below, and push them to move beyond on-paper reforms to take more serious measure to reduce corruption. In this vein, the Gezi protests, which started off as a small protest against the demolition of a small park, and turned into a massive public protestagainst the authoritarian practices of the government, generated hope for more civic engagement in the country. Whether the violations of anti-corruption norms trigger a similar moral outrage in Turkey, which would result in public demands for effective political reforms, is more than a question of time. In Turkey, corruption is still widely accepted by the public. Ordinary people do not complain about corrupt state structure and ask for more transparency if they also gain from this structure. Moreover, there is acommon belief that in general politics is “dirty”. “All politicians are corrupt anyway. These guys (he was meaning the AKP politicians) also steal but at the same time they are working, building highways and opening doors of private hospitals to ordinary people. Whoever has their status would steal too, including myself; a taxi-driver told me while he was driving me to the airport. Leaving Turkey in a political turmoil, I flew to Sweden.

Yet, it seems like more upheaval is ahead for Ankara, as the presidential elections are scheduled for August 2014, which will be followed by parliamentary elections in 2015. Rushing through legal amendments to neuter the judiciary, banning social media platforms Twitter and YouTube, (the former was unblocked after a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court on April 2) and granting sweeping new powers to the national intelligence agency in the foreign affairs, the AKP government is obviously not trying to round out Turkey’s unfinished democracy. Instead, Erdoğan is seeking to increase its control over state institutions, to silence the opposition and, finally to ease the political tension in the country. The anti-corruption rhetoric will also be an integral part of the government’s strategy leading to the upcoming elections. Ankara already placed the fight against corruption in its priority list in the wake of the March 30 local polls. Will this bring a new victory for the AKP? Yes! As long as Erdoğan’s economic bubble doesn’t explode, the authoritarian turn of the government or the corruption allegations won’t affect the voters of the New Turkey.

This was a guest post by Digdem Soyaltin, who is a graduate student at Berlin’s PhD program in Transnational Studies (a joint endeavor of Freie Universität Berlin, the Hertie School of Governance, and the Social Science Research Center Berlin). Digdem is currently located at Stockholm University, but previously spent time at the Research College “The Transformative Power of Europe” in Berlin and the Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey) in London. Her research has been published in Journal of Balkans and Near Eastern Studies and Turkish Studies. You can follow Digdem’s work at

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