“The corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst”
– David Hume
Political troubles have been brewing in Turkey since last Tuesday when a series of arrests of high-profile public officials linked to a wide-scale corruption scandal began. Amongst those arrested include police officers, leading businessmen, the head of the Turkish state bank, Halkbank, and the sons of numerous ministers close to the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). As the facts of the scandal began to surface, three cabinet members handed in their resignation and one of them, environment minister Erdogan Bayraktar, urged Erdogan to follow suit. A defiant Erdogan, who has held power for 11 years, responded by announcing a cabinet reshuffle, appointing 10 new ministers to replace the three who quit. This response has widely been viewed as an unsatisfactory one.
So far, 16 people have been charged in connection with the scandal, all said to be engaged in corrupt practices, bribery, tender-rigging and illicit money transfers to Iran. A total of 24 individuals remain in detention. The scandal has been troublesome for the Erdogan government, and has revealed inter-cabinet tensions which have long been concealed from the public eye due to the lack of transparency within the Turkish government. Erdogan in his 11 years in power has managed to maintain an aura of “invincibility”, surviving general elections, attempted military coups, leadership challenges and mass protests which erupted earlier this year. But commentators have suggested that the present scandal could serve as the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
It is something of an understatement to claim that the period of Erdogan’s office has witnessed a serious curtailing of rights, both civil and constitutional. Critics have accused him and his AKP government of pursuing an Islamist agenda which poses a threat to Turkey’s hard-won and jealously guarded secular constitution. Erdogan has advocated a conservative stance on issues such as abortion, birth control, cohabitation and Muslim dress. Religious issues aside, other moves demonstrate a reckless disregard of democratic principles. His refusal to recognise the legal rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, as well as a draconian programme of curbing press freedom, have been particularly controversial.
It has been reported by Amnesty International, as well as numerous other sources, that Turkey, for the second year in a row, jails more journalists than any other country in the world, including Iran and China. Furthermore, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2013 places Turkey at number 53 for corruption. This wouldn’t be too alarming a figure if Turkey hadn’t been slipping further down on the rankings consistently for the past few years; in 2012, it was ranked number 49.
Turkey’s democratic erosion is regrettably reflected in the proceedings against those involved in the corruption scandal. Many prosecutors involved in the case have accused the police forces and government officials of attempting to obstruct the case. One prosecutor, Muammer Akkas, in a letter addressed to the Turkish media said he had also been removed from the case, which he described as compromised by police who had refused to comply with his orders to take more suspects into custody. Members of the judiciary were pressurized by the police and important witnesses were allowed to flee with crucial pieces of evidence.
In circumstances such as these, it seems improbable that the case will be executed impartially and independently. The separation of the judicial branch from government is a fundamental facet of constitutional democracy- one that is indeed enshrined in the Turkish constitution. But the constitution is increasingly being ignored, with all-important constitutional safeguards for grieved citizens and servants of the law being ignored with it. This poses a dangerous threat to Turkey’s democratic framework. At a time like this, checks and balances and government accountability proceedings have never been more crucial. But with the judiciary in a severely compromised position to carry these tasks out, the future of Turkey’s status as a functioning secular democracy hangs in the balance.
But in spite of the allegations against Erdogan’s government as well as the widespread dissatisfaction which was demonstrated by the protests earlier this year, public opinion still leans towards support for the AKP. Whether or not this support will last through the troubled judicial proceedings is quite another matter. Some commentators have even suggested that Erdogan’s own resignation is imminent. But will Erdogan, a leader with an infamously tight grip on power, resign off his own accord, or will Turkey acquiesce into the ranks of its troubled Middle Eastern neighbours such as Syria, where more violent and decisive action has been taken to put an end to over-powerful executives?
It is clear that change is necessary. What is not clear is how and when that change will come.