Turkish Turmoil and Politically-Motivated Anticorruption Enforcement

At the Project Syndicate website, Dani Rodrik had a very nice commentary last month about the recent power struggles in Turkey, which have included prominent anticorruption actions against senior government figures. These actions have been brought by prosecutors sympathetic to one faction (the Gülenists) against high-ranking figures affiliated with Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party (the AKP). For people like me, who know next to nothing about Turkey, Rodrik’s post provides a nice overview (albeit one with a strong editorial slant). In addition, one passage in Rodrik’s post caught my attention, as it seems related to a common pattern, and problem, in the world of anticorruption enforcement:

The Gülenists have dressed up their campaign against Erdoğan in the guise of a corruption probe. No one who is familiar with Turkey would be surprised to learn that there was large-scale corruption surrounding construction projects. But the corruption probe is clearly politically motivated, and Erdoğan is right to question the prosecutors’ motives. The current round of judicial activism is as much about rooting out corruption as previous rounds were about [other alleged malfeasance] – which is to say, not much at all.

This seems to be a frequently recurring pattern: (1) one party or faction launches an aggressive anticorruption probe against a rival party or faction; (2) it is almost certainly true that most or all of the targets of the corruption investigation did in fact engage in corruption—often serious corruption; yet (3) it is also often the case that those pushing the investigations are doing so not only, or even primarily, out of genuine concern about corruption, but rather as a way to damage a political rival. The most familiar manifestation of this pattern occurs when a new party or faction comes to power and launches corruption investigations against its predecessors or main rivals, as part of what may amount to a purge (or, more mildly, an effort to consolidate power). There’s a plausible argument that this is what’s happening right now in China. The Turkey situation is a bit different, in that a faction that does not currently control the government nonetheless has enough support within the justice system (police, prosecutors, judges, etc.) to launch politically-motivated corruption probes of government officials.

I’m not sure how committed anticorruption reformers should feel about situations like this. Whenever I see headlines about recent corruption arrests or convictions in Turkey (or China, or other places where we see politicized anticorruption enforcement), I feel conflicted:

On the one hand, corruption is corruption, and the people getting nailed probably deserve it. (I’m putting aside cases that involve frame-ups or fabrication of evidence.) Furthermore, politicians may be deterred from engaging in corrupt activities if they fear exposure by a political rival. And much as we might prefer anticorruption enforcers to be motivated solely by a commitment to public welfare, as a practical matter perhaps the desire for political gain is sometimes a necessary incentive for powerful actors to take action (often costly or risky action) to investigate and prosecute corruption—in much the same way that a desire to sell newspapers or to attract viewers, rather than a high-minded commitment to an informing the citizenry, may be what motivates at least some media outlets to engage in socially beneficial (but risky and costly) investigative reporting.

On the other hand, politically motivated anticorruption “purges” may have a number of very bad effects. They might not really reduce corruption, but rather redistribute corruption opportunities from one faction to another. Politically-motivated anticorruption enforcement may also foster cynicism about anticorruption generally, which could in turn erode norms of integrity and thereby undermine the fight against corruption. Indeed, those resisting or opposing anticorruption efforts often describe them as politically-motivated witch-hunts, and it’s harder for genuine reformers to counter that accusation if it looks like many anticorruption efforts are indeed politically-motivated witch-hunts (even if the “witches” are real). On top of all that, the fear of a subsequent purge may incentivize incumbent leaders to act more vigorously to suppress opposition, or weaken anticorruption enforcement tools that might be turned against them.

So I’m not sure how I feel about the pattern that Rodrik describes in his post.  Putting aside the other implications for Turkish politics, I’m not sure whether the current corruption probes of the AKP government are likely to reduce or increase corruption in Turkey over the long term.  (I have the same conundrum when thinking about the current anti-graft crackdown in China.)  This strikes me as a dilemma that anticorruption reformers and researchers ought to think a bit more systematically about. Perhaps I will do so at some point, though I’m sure others could do it much better.

3 thoughts on “Turkish Turmoil and Politically-Motivated Anticorruption Enforcement

  1. This post raises interesting issues about politically-motivated domestic enforcement of anti-corruption statutes, and I wonder if these same issues are present in extraterritorial enforcement of these statutes. The FCPA comes to mind. If the US wanted to punish another country for international-relations reasons, it could make it “more expensive” to do business there by increasing FCPA prosecutions of businesses operating there. Assuming such prosecutions were legitimate, meaning legally sufficient, would the intentionally selective nature of them (unrelated to the merits of the cases) raise moral issues? Especially if they were criminal prosecutions? The FCPA Professor has posted about “The FCPA As A Foreign Policy Stick,” and he was skeptical of its efficacy. http://fcpaprofessor.blogspot.com/2009/10/fcpa-as-foreign-policy-stick.html
    However, that doesn’t address the normative question of should these anticorruption statutes be used as a(nother) foreign policy tool. Especially when they’re used criminally, I think the answer is no.

  2. This post certainly describes a pattern of enforcement that’s compelling. However, in a developing country context I have difficulty untangling the circumstances where anti-corruption enforcement is done for political motivations and when it is done for pure social welfare reasons, precisely because of the circumstances described in the post. Political actors often require some kind of incentive to prosecute high profile cases. More importantly, when the corrupt official in question is extremely powerful, it takes an equally powerful opposition party to overcome the fear of retaliation.

    For me the legitimacy of anti-corruption enforcement must turn on whether the “witches” are real. The collateral consequences mentioned in the post seem to be valid risks, but I think in most circumstances the benefit of purging corrupt officials outweighs the cost.

    • Superb comment, Meng Lu! Nevertheless, I have a different thought about the expression that you used above: “collateral damages”. The supposed fact that prosecutors usually choose to purge only a faction or party of governments agents taints the integrity of a corruption probe, even if those targets are, indeed, guilty? I would say yes: violation of due process (targeted prosecution).

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