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February 3, 2017 5:01 am

Erdogan: A Classic Case of How Power Corrupts

avatar by Alon Ben-Meir

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written on the endemic corruption in Turkey that involves virtually every social stratum — including political, judicial, government administration, private sector, civil society, business and military — and that stands in total contrast to President Erdogan’s grandiose vision to make Turkey a significant player on the global stage.

After 15 years in power, Erdogan now presides over a state deeply entrenched in corruption, conspiracy theories and intrigue. He uses every lever of power to cover up the pervasive corruption consuming the nation and overshadowing the remarkable sociopolitical progress and economic growth that he made during his first nine years in power.

To consolidate his reign, he intimidated his political opponents, emasculated the military, silenced the press and enfeebled the judiciary; most recently, he pressed the parliament to amend the constitution to grant him essentially absolute powers.

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Turkey ranks 75th in the world in transparency on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index — falling nine places since 2015. More than 40% of Turkish households perceive public officials to be corrupt.

Given the pervasiveness of corruption, economic progress in Turkey has slowed down. In Erdogan’s initial years, the economy grew by 5-7% because he made it a priority while focusing on the poor and less educated, who subsequently became his core supporters.

When the global economy was strong, Turkey registered significant economic growth, but an inflated and corrupt bureaucracy made it extremely difficult to be granted licenses for development, making it ever harder for foreign and local investors to accelerate the process without bribing government officials.

During a corruption investigation in 2013, $17.5 million in cash was discovered in the homes of various officials, including the director of state-owned Halkbank. Fifty-two people connected to the ruling AK Party were detained in one day, but subsequently released due to “lack of evidence.”

Given this grim reality, as long as the government continues to deny the existence of pandemic corruption, Erdogan’s ambition to make Turkey’s economy among the ten largest economies by 2023 (the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic) has become nothing but a pipe dream.

Erdogan has shown zero tolerance for criticism and has worked to stifle the press. Any media outlet that exposed corruption cases became an “enemy of the state.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 81 members of the press are currently imprisoned in Turkey, all of whom have been charged with anti-state offenses, and over 100 news outlets have been ordered closed by the government. In total, between July 20 and December 31, 2016, 178 broadcasters, websites and newspapers were shuttered.

Whereas in a democracy the media is considered central to keeping the government honest, in Turkey, investigative journalism has become outlawed.

Two-thirds of Turks in a recent survey revealed that they perceive political parties to be corrupt. Turkey lacks an entity that monitors the financing of parties, which are required to submit their financial tables to the Constitutional Court, an institution ill-equipped to handle audits.

Additionally, according to the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, Turkey “does not have a specific regulatory process to eliminate possible conflicts of interest” for parliamentarians who transition to the private sector after their terms are complete.

Several of Erdogan’s ministers (Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, Interior Minister Muammer Guler, and Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar) resigned after their sons were arrested on allegations of bribery. Following their resignation, Erdogan fired thousands of police officers, prosecutors and judges, and accused the Gulen movement of a coup attempt.

The arrest and indictment in US courts of Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab poses a significant threat to Erdogan’s authority, as top AK officials are wrapped up in the indictment — including some of Erdogan’s family members. Pro-government media quickly leveled accusations against the American prosecutor and judge involved in the case of being instruments of the Gulen movement.

The ramifications of the wide-spread political corruption also have major adverse impacts on Turkey’s relations with foreign governments  — which interact with Ankara out of necessity rather than by free choice, particularly the EU.

According to the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, 13% of households reported having to pay a bribe after coming into contact with the judiciary. The flaws of the Turkish judiciary have “undermined the acceptance of the ruling by all segments of Turkish society and tainted it with allegations of political score-settling,” according to one report.

An even-handed judiciary is necessary to have a healthy and sustainable democracy. But when it becomes corrupted, as it has in Turkey, there is a ripple effect that occurs, since all government officials feel that they can continue to act in such a manner with impunity.

According to the EU Progress Report 2016, extensive legal protection is given to counter-terrorism personnel and “the military and intelligence services continue to lack sufficient accountability in Parliament.” The same report states, “Access to audit reports by the Turkish Court of Accounts on the security, defense and intelligence agencies remains restricted.”

Erdogan has replaced hundreds of generals, which led to a reduction in strategic planning and overall quality of military effectiveness. His purge of the military high brass three years ago on charges of conspiring to topple the government has eroded Turkey’s position in NATO.

Similarly, the purge of the top echelon of the military following the July 2016 coup further weakened military preparedness, which raises serious questions about Turkey’s military prowess and its effectiveness as a member of NATO.

Turkey defies the NATO charter that requires its members to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” By not adhering to these principles, Turkey risks being potentially expelled, especially now that Erdogan appears to be increasingly gravitating toward Moscow.

The EU Progress Report of 2016 also notes: “Participation by civil society in the budgetary process is poor…and independent civil society organizations are rarely involved in law- and policy-making processes.”

Corruption creates fear in society — individuals who might otherwise wish to expose acts of corruption are now afraid to be implicated. According to Transparency International’s Oya Ozarslan, “Today you can’t offer people neither a good nor a bad example because corruption trials have become impossible in Turkey. This in turn legitimates the notion that [the corrupt] get away with it anyway.”

The AK Party pledged “[to wage a] most intensive struggle [against corruption],” and fully ensure “transparency and accountability prevail in every area of public life… [to prevent] the pollution of politics,” but then Erdogan himself rejected any practical measures to tackle corruption, fearing damaging exposure.

Sadly, much of what Erdogan aspired to could have been realized had he continued the reforms he initiated, and had he brought Turkey to the international status he desired without resorting to authoritarianism.

After 15 years in power, Erdogan is a classic example of how power corrupts. It is time for the public and the opposition parties to demand that he leave the political scene and allow the formation of a democratically elected government. Otherwise, Turkey will forfeit its huge potential of becoming a significant player on the international stage.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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