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.