A year ago, a spate of corruption allegations leveled at high-ranking officials in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) placed the country’s graft problem and political tumult squarely in the international spotlight. Prosecutors alleged misconduct involving over $100 billion by more than 90 top officials, including then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son. AKP supporters believe the charges were politically motivated, pursued by supporters of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen in an effort to undercut the AKP. (Gulenists, whose marriage of convenience with the AKP dates back to the early 2000s, had secured key positions in the bureaucracy, police, and judiciary. But Erdogan’s growing power and disagreements over foreign policy strained the alliance, and tensions between the two grew.) In a swift response many believe was led by Erdogan, thousands of police were removed from the corruption probe. Prosecutors and judges were likewise dismissed, and the AKP-dominated Parliament passed a bill restructuring the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) to give the political branches greater control over the judiciary.
Erdogan’s government put the nail in the corruption investigation’s coffin last month with a bill that bolsters executive police powers at the expense of the judiciary’s oversight function. In brief, the new law reduces the power of incumbent judges in two top courts through a restructure and proscribes broader search and seizure power to police. Both moves are designed to give the AKP the upper hand in future disputes with the judicial branch.
The erosion of judicial independence will make anticorruption prosecutions more difficult in the future. But Turkey’s problems run deeper. In short, these recent developments are merely an extension of a corrosive pattern of governance and weakening rule of law: (1) a steady expansion of executive power and (2) infringements on freedom of expression–developments that have been countered, if at all, by (3) an illiberal counterweight, in the form of the Gulen movement. Getting corruption in Turkey under control will require tackling each of these three underlying causes.
Expansion of Executive Power
Erdogan and the AKP have led the adoption of vast changes to the Turkish Constitution in the past seven years that have consolidated power in executive hands. After failing to secure the presidency for an ally in 2007, Erdogan and his supporters put forward a series of constitutional amendments—passed by popular referendum in 2007 and 2010—that profoundly changed Turkey’s configuration and distribution of legislative, judicial, and executive power.
The first amendment package bolstered the President’s executive power, in significant part by making the President directly elected. Later reforms modified the legislature and judiciary, most controversially by increasing the President’s judicial-appointment power. Turkish minorities and secularists worried that the latter provisions could pave the way for a politically dominant President or party in the legislature to pack the courts and thereby gut existing protections for religious, political, and ethnic minorities. The contentious changes took full effect this past year, as Erdogan won Turkey’s first direct, public Presidential election.
Since Erdogan’s election as President, he has continued to drive the legislative agenda, including by appointing close ally and supporter Ahmet Davutoglu to the Prime Ministership and committing to personally chair Ministerial meetings. New perks materialized too; the October 2014 budget upped the President’s individual budget by 97 percent, and the new presidential palace cost over $800 million to construct. In sum, by gradual amendment and political maneuvering, Erdogan has broadly reconfigured the balance of power and endowed himself, as the executive, with broad power and prominence.
Stifling Freedom of Expression
Freedom of the press in Turkey was downgraded from “partly free” to “not free” earlier this year by democracy watchdog Freedom House. The Turkish government has long pursued press cooption, including by buying, fining, and suing outlets into compliance. Twitter and YouTube were both blocked for a time in 2014. Journalists are routinely imprisoned under harsh anti-defamation laws. And though Turkey shed the shameful title of “world’s worst jailer” of journalists in 2014 by releasing dozens of imprisoned reporters, it carried out a fresh set of arrests targeting Gulenist newsmen last month, after police seizure laws were relaxed. Then on December 16, 2014, 35 university students were put on trial for their role in the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Turkey remains among the ten worst jailers of journalists this year, alongside beacons of freedom like Syria, Eritrea, and Myanmar. Government pressure is assisted by self-censorship by the media, which together make serious, independent investigations into corruption allegations exceedingly difficult.
Illiberal Counterweight: the Gulen Movement
Balancing powers in a democracy should mitigate the excesses of each branch by pitting the ambitions of one party or branch against another. But in Turkey, the alliance between AKP supporters in the legislature and Gulenists in the executive and judicial branches instead created fertile ground for abuse. After the AKP took power in the early 2000s, the parties were united in their focus on eliminating the threat posed by Turkey’s powerful military, which had staged four coups since the 1950s. Once the military was sufficiently neutralized, Gulenists took aim at their own rivals, initiating the Ergenekon investigation into an alleged coup plot. The investigation snowballed into a series of trials, including most infamously the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) affair. Over 1,000 individuals were detained and prosecuted on flimsy evidence, some of which was later shown to have been fabricated and planted. In short, the judicial branch itself helped undermine the rule of law in Turkey.
But as highlighted above, two wrongs don’t make a right. The purge of Gulenists sets a dangerous precedent of political overreach into judicial affairs that is unlikely to restore transparent government. Meanwhile, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has failed to muster adequate numbers in Parliament to effectively counterbalance the AKP.
The Constitutional Court: A Ray of Hope?
The Constitutional Court has been a rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal year. In April, it struck down part of an AKP bill that gave the executive Justice Department appointment and oversight control over the HSYK. Then in May, it ruled unconstitutional bans on Twitter and YouTube instituted after corruption allegations and leaked recordings of alleged misconduct were spread via the two platforms. Nevertheless, the Constitutional Court cannot single-handedly fix Turkey’s corruption problems. Restoring accountability will require reversing these dangerous underlying trends. Unfortunately, the Turkish public seems largely unfazed by credible allegations of serious corruption: The AKP increased its vote share to over 40% in local elections in March, and Erdogan handily won the presidency with over 50% of the popular vote. Without a fundamental change in Turkish political dynamics, Turkey’s corruption epidemic is likely only to worsen in the years ahead.