Turkey’s democratic woes

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The corruption scandal rocking Turkey showcases in ample and juicy detail all chronic ills besetting the country’s politics.  Sleaze was supposed to be a thing of the past, the antediluvian period of the 1990s and well before AKP’s rise to power. Only seasoned Turkey watchers remember the graft stories associated with once mighty politicians such as ex-prime ministers Tansu Çiller or Mesut Yilmaz. In popular perception, the new Turkey emerging under Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership since 2002, fast growing and confident to the point of arrogance, had managed all but sever links with the messy, rotten politics of previous decades. Such views were rooted in two factors.

Firstly, AKP rule brought to the fore cleavages to do with identity politics (secularism vs. Islamist conservatism; does Turkey belong to the EU or not; the Kurdish issue) overshadowing socio-economic issues such as conflicts over wealth distribution and concerns about the abuse of public office for private gain. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we are talking about a period of sustained growth. With the exception of the slump in 2009, the Turkish economy grew by an annual average of 5% since AKP took the helm.  But it is also clear that benefits have been reaped by the new business elites close to the prime minster and his associates (e.g. Erdoğan’s son-in-law who was until recently the CEO of a big holding group). Some of this new wealth has indeed trickled down even to those at the very low end of the social ladder. But consumption and investment (large construction projects, principally) have been the main drivers of the boom. Nearly everyone has a finger in the pie. Last year alone credit to households jumped by a staggering 28% stoking fears of a bubble. To put it another way, why bother about bribery in high places and ministers enriching themselves through large-scale construction deals or trading in Iranian gas and oil, when times are good for the Ahmets and Mehmets down the alley?

The corruption bombshell burst out only as a result of a power struggle between Erdoğan and the movement headed by cleric Fethullah Gülen wielding influence over the judiciary, police, education, business and the media (including the Zaman and Today’s Zaman papers). Once AKP’s fellow traveler, the Hizmet movement has now demonstrated it is the sole credible opposition in a political system dominated by the governing party. Indeed, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) counts on support from “the Cemaat” (community), as it is known, to have a strong showing in the local elections on 30 March, including in Istanbul where CHP’s Mustafa Sarıgül poses a real challenge to the incumbent mayor Kadir Topbaş.It is, to be fair, ironic that the hard-core secularists should align with a secretive Islamist movement they vilified until yesterday - but such are the vagaries of Turkish politics. In a mirroring move, Erdoğan is pushing for a retrial of hundreds of military men convicted in the Ergenekon case seen as a cause célèbre for the Gülenists. Hardly surprising that foreign observers should be confused by the Byzantine maneuvers and reshuffles. It is furthermore far from clear how the fight will end. The prime minister uses the occasion to purge in sweeping moves the ranks of police chiefs and prosecutors from the Cemaat but, equally, looks vulnerable as corruption threads lead to him and AKP figures are jumping ship one after the other. His habitual penchant for scapegoating foreign plotters, be it the US or Israel, is apparently not doing its magic. One person to watch is President Abdullah Gül who is seen closer to Gülen -- and might succeed an emasculated Erdoğan as prime minister after the August presidential elections.

The crisis and the virulence it unleashed prompts some rather sombre thoughts about the state of ailing Turkish democracy. At the end of the day, one is stuck between two less than good options. On the one hand, a power-grabbing, authoritarian-minded leader ready to bulldoze over opponents, as seen during the Gezi protests in the past summer. On the other side of the ring: a behind-the-scenes, unaccountable network exercising power through effectively capturing and colonising branches of the state machine. Erdoğan has been challenging the Gülenist to launch a party and test their strength in elections, and perhaps he has a point. After all, he has a majority of voters behind him. Yet, in Turkey as in other countries where executive power is not subject to a well-functioning system of checks and balances, the scandal might do a bit of good.

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