Turkey's long-ruling AKP is facing fierce criticism over rampant state corruption, but its economic successes, persecution of whistleblowers and control over the media mean that it could entrench itself indefinitely, David Lepeska writes
The corruption was all around. Months after accepting a planning position at Istanbul’s Fatih municipality in mid-2010, Azat Yalcin found himself waist-deep in a sea of impropriety: no-bid contracts awarded to a firm owned by a district minister’s wife; illegal destruction of Ottoman-era buildings; and a wire transfer receipt sent from a major construction firm to a top official to confirm a bribe payment.
The 30-year-old denounced the crimes, accepted a demotion and started to compile evidence. “They weren’t scared of getting caught,” he said over tea at an Istanbul cafe. “They would talk about it in front of me and file the revealing documents in the regular files.”
The postcard image of Istanbul – the silhouette of a minaret-spiked hillside looming over the Bosphorus – is the skyline of Fatih. The word, also a popular boy’s name, means “conqueror” in Turkish and refers to Sultan Mehmet II, the Ottoman leader who took Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453 – claiming, for Muslims, the ancient seat of empires.
Among Turks today, particularly conservatives, few words evoke more historical pride. “Istanbul is not just a city … it is a city that builds civilisations,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said during a January campaign stop. “Those who do not understand the conquest and the conqueror cannot serve Istanbul.”
Today, the district is a 13-square-kilometre peninsula crowded with history. Growing up amid its crumbling streetscapes, Yalcin sketched ageing monuments in a pre-teen drawing class. He also built whole neighbourhoods out of Lego. “I’ve been doing city planning since I was little,” he said.
Balding, jolly and soft in the middle, these days he looks every bit the mild-mannered civil servant. Just over a year ago, he handed a folder of incriminating evidence to his boss. He was fired and took his wrongful termination case to court. His superiors told the judge he had been fired for not coming to work on weekends and holidays, and Yalcin won the case.
On his first day back at the office, his colleagues kept their distance. He was given a cupboard-sized office with no computer and a single responsibility: counting the district’s street cats. “I asked my boss, ‘What will you do with this information?’” said Yalcin. “This is not normal. Is it some sort of fetish?”
Graft seems to have seduced Turkey’s ruling party, from the seat of power to dusty offices in the heart of its continent-straddling megacity. “Some officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity,” says the US State Department’s annual human rights report on Turkey, published last month.
In recent weeks, a steady stream of accusations and alleged recordings – most notably Erdogan and his son Bilal on the phone, clumsily discussing how to hide millions of dollars in cash – have laid bare what looks to be a corrosive system of pressure, patronage and profit. The government’s recent blockage of Twitter suggests a fear of more revelations still to come.
“The scale of it is unprecedented,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “The [corruption] numbers have been magnified because the Turkish economy has grown so fast and because nobody has ruled the country for this long, with no serious institutions enforcing any degree of accountability.”
On the campaign trail, Erdogan has been asserting that ballot box success will prove his party’s honesty. It’s a safe, if illogical, bet. His neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won all five elections in which it has participated since its 2001 founding.
With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for this August and the following June, respectively, the March 30 vote to choose leaders for nearly 1,400 districts and municipalities is just the first of three national referendums on corruption. Yet it could put Turkey on the road to the sort of decades-long, one-party dominance previously seen in Japan, Mexico and elsewhere – or something even worse.
“If Erdogan comes successfully out of this election, and the two still to come, Turkey could move towards a predominant party system with even less political competition than we see today,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said in an email. “This aspect makes this election a milestone in Turkey’s political future.”
Ankara is the capital, but Istanbul is the country’s true power centre, representing one-fifth of its population and 40 per cent of its tax base. The AKP candidate is the current mayor Kadir Topbas, running for a third term. His primary challenger is the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Mustafa Sarigul, the mayor of Istanbul’s most populous district, Sisli. Sarigul, who has himself been accused of corruption, has called Erdogan his “real opponent in Istanbul”.
The prime minister has been a near-constant presence in the city, and is keenly aware of Istanbul’s political potency, having leveraged his 1990s mayoralty into his ongoing stint as Turkey’s longest-serving prime minister.
In the 2011 general elections, the AKP took nearly 50 per cent of the vote. This Sunday, the party expects to do less well, garnering about as much support as it received in the last local elections in 2009, 39 per cent. Some analysts believe the CHP has a shot to take the mayoralties in Istanbul and Ankara now that the prime minister has been implicated in the corruption. “The world has never seen a thief like him before,” the CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said at a rally early this month. “Do you still trust this man?”
Strange as it may seem, many do. This is partially the fault of the opposition parties. “There doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative nationally,” said Ozel. “They’ve chosen good candidates in municipal elections, but in terms of a new vision, there’s really nothing there.” In their defence, it’s hard to present a vision without a voice.
The government has, in recent months, controlled public messaging via a dictator-level war on information. Over a 12-day period last month, Turkey’s state-run broadcaster gave the AKP 13 hours on-air, but only 93 minutes for all opposition parties, according to an official report. “We don’t know how much of the news that’s been coming out penetrates to the general public,” said Ozel, “given that social media is in limited use and other outlets are being so tightly controlled.”
In leaked recordings (not independently verified), Erdogan dictates newspaper headlines and chooses guests to appear on news shows; tells one media executive to reduce his coverage of the opposition; upbraids another for using the word “corruption” in news reports; and calls his justice minister to discuss the possibility of reversing a recent judgement in favour of a critical media firm. [The prime minister has admitted to the phone calls to media executives and the justice minister.]
More than a dozen newspapers and television stations are owned by conglomerates with interests in construction or energy. “Their number one priority is usually to protect their good relations with the government,” says a recent report from Freedom House, a press watchdog. Facing self-censorship or termination, many journalists have turned to the web, launching or joining independent news outlets willing to criticise the government.
Government censors have followed them there. In addition to the Twitter ban, which in its first days failed to keep Turks from using the service, Turkish officials have deported an Azeri journalist, citing critical tweets, and passed a new internet law allowing officials to block websites without a court order.
Other new laws handing control of judiciary appointments to the executive branch and expanding the powers of Turkey’s intelligence agency and its communications directorate fortify the government’s information control. AKP leaders paint these steps as necessary to defeat a coup attempt from a “parallel state” overseen by the Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Whatever the involvement of the followers of Gulen, pointing to a vague, largely unseen threat is an age-old political trick in Turkey, and its continued effectiveness underscores what may be the main reason for lasting AKP dominance: the weakness of Turkey’s institutions. Turkey’s democracy has witnessed four coups since 1960 and remains immature after 90 years. It’s no coincidence that Turkey’s longest-serving prime minister is also the first to be accused of graft.
Excessive centralisation, poor checks and balances and weak separation of powers encourage corruption, according to Unluhisarcikli. What’s more, Turkey’s political financing system is porous and members of parliament are immune from prosecution. A 2010 Turkey report from the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (Greco) says “donations … are frequently not properly recorded and accounts tend to lack detailed and comprehensive information on the finances of the parties concerned”. Erdogan has in recent weeks argued that funds given from private firms to public officials are not bribes, but donations.
This view seems to have been integrated into party philosophy after gaining tacit religious approval years ago in a fatwa from AKP Islamic adviser Hayrettin Karaman. One man, the alleged facilitator of some US$28 billion (Dh102.8bn) in illicit gold-for-cash deals with Iran, is thought to have used a Dubai-based front company to donate $100 million to the Foundation for Youth and Education (Turgev), run by Bilal Erdogan. Turgev has been at the centre of the corruption scandal, allegedly receiving hundreds of millions in donations as well as valuable chunks of land.
Turks have lived under corrupt regimes for centuries and tend to view such malfeasance as an unavoidable and relatively minor annoyance, akin to a steady rain. “He steals, but he serves well,” is a common saying. Yet, when combined with economic trouble – a real possibility today with the country’s skyrocketing debt, massive current account deficit, and weak currency – revelations of graft have toppled governments again and again.
Erdogan has twice been carried to power on the back of corruption. In 1994, Istanbul’s waterworks manager was found guilty of accepting bribes. Nurettin Sozen, who was mayor at the time, was not implicated, but media criticism cut into his support, handing victory to Erdogan and his Welfare Party. Eight years later, the newly created AKP swept to power on a national tide of corruption fatigue.
After a decade of disaster and upheaval, it’s hard to overstate the gratitude many Turks felt towards the well-functioning AKP government. The largely prosperous years since have inspired further trust in the party, and have recently allowed Erdogan to dismiss the corruption allegations as a plot to halt Turkey’s growth miracle. He points to the railroads, highways, bridges, skyscrapers and homes built in the past decade, asking: “My brothers, could a corrupt government do this?”
In fact, Transparency International has long cited the construction industry as the world’s most corrupt. The accounting firm Grant Thornton estimates that by 2025, construction-related fraud will have cost the world $1.5 trillion – or about one-tenth the United States’ GDP. Turkey’s scandal has implicated a who’s who of builders. Among those who have been detained is the Fatih mayor and longtime AKP member Mustafa Demir.
The Istanbul race is likely to be close, but most observers expect Topbas to retain his spot. The city’s historic peninsula is less decided and the outcomes in major districts like Fatih will shape political momentum in the elections to come. Despite its flashy tourist areas, Fatih remains one of Istanbul’s more conservative districts, controlled by Islam-friendly parties for two decades.
Running for a third term, Demir has been fending off corruption allegations since August, when Yalcin started speaking to Turkish newspapers. He highlighted contracts handed to transportation minister Ali Ulusoy’s wife; dozens of old buildings near Suleymaniye Mosque illegally destroyed; a beloved park stealthily remade into a parking garage; and a smartphone photo of a wire transfer receipt sent by an executive at Sarilar Insaat – the engineering firm directing construction on the $2.6bn third bridge across the Bosphorus – to Fatih official Orhan Yilmaz to confirm a bribe payment.
Home to the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and other attractions, Fatih is largely an open-air museum – and thus something of a gold mine. Like much of urban Turkey, the district has boomed during the AKP era. Several areas are today dense with smart shops, boutique guesthouses and chic restaurants. Amid all the construction, Demir has been accused of taking bribes in return for special building allowances, among other crimes.
On a recent afternoon in the district’s Topkapi neighbourhood, mayoral support appeared to be ebbing. Ahmet, a 60-year-old engineer, thought Demir had done a good job, but predicted that the negative attention would hurt. “These moral issues are more important for Fatih residents because we’re good Muslims,” he said. “I’m not sure Demir will win.”
His opponent is the CHP candidate Sabri Erbakan. In 2009, the AKP beat the CHP decisively here, 30 to 43 per cent. But many expect the nephew of former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s mentor and the godfather of Islamist politics in Turkey, to steal some of the Muslim vote. “The government is playing so many games, these corruption charges could definitely be true,” a butcher named Haydar said while slicing lamb chops. “But maybe all politicians are corrupt. I think Mustafa Demir is still the best person for Fatih.”
Zakir, a retired electrician sitting with his son on a park bench, disagreed. “Erbakan is a true man, a good Muslim,” he said. Regardless of how the AKP does in the March 30 vote, many expect Erdogan to alter the AKP’s three-term limit and run for prime minister again next June. Meanwhile, recent mass demonstrations and the angry response to the Twitter ban suggest animosity toward the prime minister continues to rise. More corruption revelations, authoritarianism and political instability are likely in the months ahead. “I think it will get darker,” said Ozel.
The gleam of the Turkish state has dimmed considerably over the past year. But internally, the corrosion has been going on for some time. Yalcin did end up counting cats for the municipality, for about a week, then submitted a report detailing some 150 of them. “We know there are more than this,” his boss told him, firing him again. He again took his case to court, where it remains.
Turkey has no law to protect whistleblowers, so Yalcin has won gratitude but few followers. “So many people are proud of what I’m doing, of what I’ve said,” he explained. “But they will not step into the photo with me.” One reason may be the prime minister’s willingness to go after critics. In January, Erdogan filed a lawsuit against Yalcin, claiming assault via social media. It was later dropped because of a lack of evidence, according to Yalcin, who believes the suit was meant to scare him into silence.
Still without a job, he expects to finish his doctoral coursework in May and has thought about working in Europe or the US. But his heart remains in Fatih. Yalcin points out that Demir is from south-east Turkey and says if his home district is ever going to be fixed, it will be committed locals doing the heavy lifting. “For more than a year now, I’ve just been writing legal papers,” he explained. “I’m an architect, not a lawyer. If I get back my job, I want to design buildings and plan neighbourhoods, not fight people about this stuff. But can that happen?”
David Lepeska is an Istanbul-based freelance writer and the former Qatar correspondent for The National. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Financial Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and other publications.