Unhappy New Year for Mr. Erdogan

A major scandal is unfolding in Turkey. Three members of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cabinet have resigned under a cloud, with their sons being investigated for illicitly gained wealth (the interior minister’s son was found with strongboxes and money-counting machines). Mr. Erdogan has overhauled his cabinet, and the investigation is now turning to foundations controlled by members of Mr. Erdogan’s own family.

The markets have panicked at this, fearing another coup or massive power struggle. And Erdogan himself has done much to fuel this view, blaming the investigation on foreign agents, the “Gulenist” conspiracy, and enemies of the Turkish nation.

In fact, this development should be welcomed. After turning the might of the investigative authorities on their political opponents — mainly the military and those who fought to keep the AKP out of office — in prior investigations, which sent dozens of high-ranking officers and others to jail, it is only right that the same scrutiny be applied to those now in power.

Unfortunately, ALL emerging democracies tend to have considerable amounts of corruption (maybe make that ALL democracies, period. The United States had a recent case of a Congressmen found with wads of cash stuffed in his freezer, and Japan has recurrent corruption scandals). It is difficult, when people who have had no access to political power for a very long time suddenly come into very powerful positions for everyone to act like angels. It is inevitable that some people will succumb to the temptation to turn their positions into sources of income. That is why all respectable democratic regimes have vigorous investigative and judicial arms that are concerned to ensure that the law is followed and corruption is rooted out — even if that leads to people at the very highest levels of authority.

Indeed, one measure of the degree to which a country is truly a well-functioning democracy is whether such investigations and the pursuit of corruption ends with low-level officials, or whether even the highest officials in the land are held accountable if they break the law. On that score, the current investigations are a sign of the maturing and truly democratic character of Turkey’s regime.

But what of the claim that this investigation is simply an attack on Erdogan by his former allies, the followers of Fetullah Gulen, who are claimed to have infiltrated the judiciary and the police? There is no doubt that the “Hizmet” or “service” movement inspired by Gulen — a philosopher who preaches toleration, modernization, and justice for all peoples and all faiths — has millions of followers. Indeed, without them, it is hard to be sure that Turkey would have progressed so far in the last two decades to become a more modern, tolerant, and democratic society. And it is quite normal that a movement stressing service and justice would attract many who seek careers in the law and law-enforcement. So yes, many followers of Gulen are involved in the investigations that are now looking into the actions of Erdogan’s ministers and their families, just as they were involved in the investigations that locked up military and anti-AKP actors who went, or threatened to go, outside the law to seek power. If there is a fault to the Turkish investigators, it is that they were too anxious to visit justice against the defendants in the investigations that Erdogan sought, rushing to judgment and using sometimes shaky evidence to obtain convictions.

So it is no wonder that Erdogan is afraid, now that the same forces have started finding illegal actions in his own party. There is a simple solution, however. If Mr. Erdogan can find the nerve, he needs to congratulate the Turkish legal system for finding corruption wherever it might be. Rather than appointing an avid supporter to lead the Interior Ministry (as he has just done), Erdogan should follow the example of the U.S. He should appoint a special prosecutor, perhaps an academic or Turkish international civil servant, someone who is seen as above the factional fights in Ankara and Istanbul, to lead the investigation, and give that person the full support of his government. If Erdogan is confident that he personally has not broken any laws, he should remain in power and support the investigation to clean his own government and party of corruption.

However, if Mr. Erdogan knows that he himself has turned a blind eye to corruption in his party and his family, then he should resign and offer his support to cooperate with the investigation in return for immunity for himself and his family. Giving up his political ambitions would be punishment enough, and his full cooperation would let the AKP focus on salvaging its reputation, finding a leader who is “clean” and commands popular respect, and remaining the leading party in Turkey.

This summer, after confrontations over the Gezi Park demonstrations, which Mr. Erdogan similarly blamed on foreign conspirators and enemies of the state, and to which he initially overreacted, Mr. Erdogan backed off and turned matters over to the courts. It is possible that he will follow the same arc here, moving from initial confrontation and paranoia to realizing that this is a matter for the courts to decide, and stepping back. If he does so, democracy will emerge stronger than ever in Turkey. The year will then have seen not one, not two, but three major triumphs for Turkish democracy: holding top military officials accountable for interfering in politics; having public demonstrations halt and perhaps alter government policies; and holding top government officials accountable for corruption.

2013 has been a testing year for Turkey’s young democracy, which hopes to be leader and example for progressive governments throughout the Islamic world. If the AKP government cooperates with the current investigations, and they succeed in bringing the guilty to justice, Turkey will have passed the tests with flying colors and deserve its status as role model for the region.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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