Corruption and State under the AKP Rule in Turkey: Retreat from the Modern Bourgeois State?

Corruption and State under the AKP Rule in Turkey:
Retreat from the Modern Bourgeois State?[1]

Abstract

Neoliberal transformations since the early 1980s have brought about the aggravation of the problem of corruption all over the world. This paper intends to differentiate corruption practices under the rule of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) from these neoliberal forms of corruption by associating the former to the party’s double mission to implement the global neoliberal agenda and its specific Islamic policies concomitantly. It argues that policies followed by the AKP to this end have led to the development of a premodern political rule in Turkey in which privilege is instutionalised within a personalised state form.

Introduction

On 17 December 2013, Turkey was shaken by a corruption scandal surrounding Erdoğan, then the Prime Minister, and his close circle which was manifested by numerous secretly recorded tapes circulated through the social media. The event marked the start of a sharp intra-state Islamist clash between the followers of Erdoğan and the Gülenist Cemaat, and led to a turbulent political crisis in the country. It has also helped strengthen the trend towards authoritarianism pushing Erdoğan to have greater and direct control over the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) and state bureaucracy, including the judiciary.

In his immediate response to these recordings, Erdoğan produced various defensive reasonings such as associating the ‘plot’ with foreign powers targetting the political and economic stability in Turkey, or accusing the Cemaat of forming a ‘parallel power structure’ within the state. In one of these instances, while defending the general director of the Halk Bank, in the house of whom 4.5 million US dollars was found hidden in shoe boxes, he abruptly made clear how he defined corruption: “robbing the state’s cash desk.”[2]

It is clear that such a definition of corruption removes even bribery from the pool of corrupt acts leave aside the more problematic rentier or clientelistic practices. Hence, it is totally at odds with the established modern definition of the term. So what does that mean? Are we faced with a simple defensive and ridiculus reaction, or should that definition and the hitherto manifested practices of corruption within the AKP be rethought to understand Erdoğan’s conception and practice of the state?

This short essay intends to think along the latter interpretation given also the fact that the changing political regime under the AKP rule has become a central question of concern in Turkey since the Gezi uprising in June 2013. It has been discussed whether there is a political move towards fascism, or an Islamist state, or authoritarian statism, or a neoliberal sultanate, just to mention a few of these.[3] Erdoğan’s political performance in the last two years provides us with supportive examples for each of these arguments. Practices such as dividing the society as ‘those from us and those against us’ and pretending to be the state of the former only, or trying to mobilise persistently the so-called AKP masses against the opponents of the party on various conflictual public issues support the claims for the rise of fascism in Turkey. On the other hand, authoritarian statist tendencies were evident in Erdoğan’s openly declaring that the executive can intervene in the judiciary, the neglect of court decisions on many contested giant construction projects, the ban of YouTube and Twitter, or the new and reactionary legislations to take the police and the judiciary under the direct control of the government. Erdoğan’s public statement that the women were not equal to men was one that hardly fitted to a secular state. It is also important to note that all these political strategies and processes have been closely managed by Erdogan himself, leading to an identification of the state with his personal sultanate-like rule. Rethinking these practices in relation to the AKP-style corruption, this paper will highlight some fundamental changes in the making within the modern bourgeois form of the capitalist state in Turkey today.

Question of Corruption and Public/Private Divide in Modern Bourgeois Societies

The modern conception of corruption has always been crucially constitutive in the production and reproduction of public/private divide in modern bourgeois states. For the modern bourgeois form of state is distinguished from its predecessors by its apparent class-neutrality, which manifests and reproduces itself through the differentiation of the political and economic spheres as the basis of this divide. In other words, while in the pre-modern forms of state the ruling classes’ institutionalised and privileged access to the state was given, the capitalist classes are formally deprived of this opportunity in modern bourgeois states and expected to reproduce their economic dominance through market competition without using “the public office for private gain.”[4]

It is interesting to remember that the construction of this public/private divide had sometimes been imposed rupturally as exemplified by the enactment of the 1840 Criminal Law in the Ottoman Empire. For that law redefined previously legitimate acts of power such as gift-giving to Sultan’s officials as illegal and corrupt, and was put to force immediately through publicly announced corruption trails, fulfilling a socially educative role in the imposition of the new modern political order.[5] Thus, if evaluated within such a broad historical context, a critical look at the corruption practices associated with the AKP would give us important hints about the radical transformation the state in Turkey has been passing through today as both the social relations within which these practices have grown and their normalisation are at odds with the modern public/private divide.

Neoliberalism and Corruption: The Pre-AKP Period in Turkey  

Before addressing problems caused by the corruption within the AKP, it must be emphasised that corruption and neoliberalism have had a rather integrated history since the 1980s so that the quantitative rise in the number of corruption claims is not the differentiating characteristic of the AKP period. Many countries, which have launched policies of neoliberal transformation in the 1980s and 1990s, have also seen an aggravation in the problem of corruption in the same decades. Some examples would be the Menem period in Argentine, Collor de Mello rule in Brazil, Perez period in Venezuela, and the Yeltsin years of shock therapy in Russia.[6] Specific corruption claims and scandals that occupied a significant space in the Turkish public debates in the same period were the bribes that the State Minister Özdağlar took from a navigation company, the bribes paid by the General Dynamics company in Turkey during the public procurement process of F-16 airplanes, fictitious export practices to get state incentives for export promotion, and the bad loans provided by state banks to the business groups close to governmental circles.[7]

Corruption claims and practices in Turkey in those years can be mostly associated with the earlier necessity to implement neoliberal policies despite the powerful oppositions coming from the society as well as the state. This required the recruitment of new state cadres, who would work within the state against the state at large due to the latter’s loyalty to practices of import substitution, financial control, and public-interest. This strategy was complemented by the strengthening of the executive branches of the state at the expense of the legislation and judiciary at the macro level. Having accompanied by privatisations and policies to liberalise finance and trade, this whole process created a rather fertile ground for a substantial increase in corruption. The experience of Russian capitalist transformation provides evidence to the promotion of corruption as a conscious political strategy during the early years of the transition to capitalism.[8] Hence, the post-1980s corruption practices in many countries, including Turkey, can be classified as ‘neoliberal forms of corruption’, which emerged during the implementation of neoliberalism as a class project aiming to reverse the redistributive capacities of the state in favour of capital.[9]

Neoliberals has long denied the very neoliberal roots of corruptions in the 1980s and 1990s, and argued instead that they were the outcomes of incomplete or unsuccessful implementation of neoliberal reforms by the relevant states themselves. The World Bank had to ultimately accept in 2000 that  “… the simultaneous processes of developing a market economy, designing new political and social institutions and redistributing social assets have created fertile ground for corruption.”[10] Still however, the neoliberal expectation has been that corruption is  simply a short-term problem associated with the ‘transition to market economy’ and would be taken under control once the competitive market structure is institutionalised.

Corruption and the Transformation of the State Form in Turkey in the AKP Period

The recent clash between Erdoğan and the Gülenist Cemaat indicates the failure of World Bank’s expectations for Turkey. For the scale and the scope of corruption that this clash manifested has possibly no precedent in Turkish political history. For, in a tape, which was recorded during the corruption probe against four government ministers on 17 December, Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan was informing his father that only ‘a very small amount’ of 30 million Euros was left to be removed from the house.[11] As more and more tapes were distributed, and the codes of AKP-style corruption were deciphered, it has become apparent that there is something more systematic and institutionalised in this novel form of corruption. This implies that corruption during the AKP era has to be carefully differentiated from the earlier neoliberal corruption practices in Turkey and understood within a wider political and economic context.

It is true that the general framework of corruption practices under the AKP rule has been set by the specific historical conditions of neoliberal transformation in the 2000s that has comprised processes of re-regulation, urban restructuring, flexibilisation of the labour markets through the claimed anti-poverty policies, and large-scale privatisations. The AKP has utilised these opportunities of pro-capital state redistribution to strengthen its green capital base through the growing construction sector.[12] The party has also provided charity to the poor in return for votes, creating bonds of dependency of a conservative style. The economic support provided to politically loyal domestic investors in establishing links and ensuring markets in the Arab world as well as in the Islamic states of Africa has been in conformity with such strategies pursued to ensure a new political command over the society. Thus, while neoliberal ‘reforms’ specific to the so-called post-Washington Consensus have brought about similar corrupt capital accumulation opportunities elsewhere, radical transformations they have led to in the state structure and state-capital relations in Turkey have been the historically specific implications of neoliberalism in the country which need to be rethought in relation to the Islamic conservatism of the AKP.

What has differentiated the AKP-style corruption in the 2000s from those conventional corruption practices elsewhere is their organised management through the common commision pools filled by bribes from public procurements, the collection of bribes in the form of donations in foundations such as the Türkiye Eğitim ve Gençlik Vakfı (Foundation of Youth and Education in Turkey) (TÜRGEV), and Erdoğan’s direct command over these processes. These corruption practices are politically motivated as they have provided the AKP leadership with alternative or ‘parallel’ informal budgets, which could be used for the promotion of AKP’s own Islamist agenda and power base without any accountability requirement. Of course, this does not rule out the possibility that these politically motivated, systematic and institutionalised forms of corruption can themselves be also corrupted in their own terms. But our consideration here is to identify primarily the way these practices have been institutionalised within the state as well as their transformative impact on the state’s modern bourgeois form.

So why do AKP-style corruptions point into a direction towards the redefinition of the boundaries of public and private spheres in Turkey? Given the difficulties of making empirical research on corruption, the following evaluation will be made on the basis of the limited material that has come to the fore during the recent corruption scandal. The AKP’s unwillingness for permitting the launch of legal investigations on these claims by purging the public prosecutors that had launched the corruption investigations on 17 December and not revoking the privilege of immunity of the four government ministers accused of corruptions[13] imply that these accusations are not totally groundless. Furthermore, Erdoğan’s normalisation of corruption through his novel definition mentioned above can be read as an implicit acceptance of their truth.

To identify the political implications of the AKP-style corruptions, the first point to be underlined is their systematic and institutionalised fashion. The commission pools arranged in the form of private foundations such as the TÜRGEV, the board of directors of which includes Erdoğan’s son, are effective organisational tools in this regard. It appears that companies which are provided with privileged treatment in public tenders are invited to make donations to TÜRGEV in return for this service. Here, it has to be noted that TÜRGEV’s formal aim is idenfied in its website as contributing to the development of youth and education in Turkey to raise future’s professional cadres with a competence in “Islamic sciences.”[14]

It is also evident that only those companies which are loyal to Islamic culture are selectively endowed with the opportunity to have such privileged treatment while the others are excluded. This ‘symbiosis’ between the AKP and the green capital, which would normally be defined as corruption, is accepted legitimate in the eyes of AKP’s Islamic constituency due to the common normative ground they share and practical gains they would get out of it. This symbiosis also gives the Islamic businessmen the responsibility to mobilise their individual economic resources and collective powers in favour of the party through direct membership and/or active involvement in politics to support government policies.[15]

The privileged support provided to some selected business groups seems to serve the development of Erdoğan’s and AKP’s particularistic interests and reproduce a form of political command, based on personal and party-based loyalty. Even though a similar politically-driven capital accumulation process was at work during the Republican era for instance, the ultimate target of such policies used to be defined and practiced as the general “economic development of the country[16] in this period, a policy which was consistent with the idea of a modern state providing public service to the society as a whole.

The particularistic nature of this new political command becomes clearer when rethought in relation to the centrality of Erdoğan’s personalised rule for its reproduction. For at the top of this institutionalised and loyalty-based patrimonial redistribution stands Erdoğan and his close circle with their full control and information over the process. With this form of political command that establishes a mutually beneficial dependency between the personalised state and some selected business groups, it appears that the public authority of the state is getting privatised, requiring a serious reconsideration of its apparent class-neutrality. Thus, the coming to light of the particularistic nature of the capitalist state in a new patrimonial form in Turkey requires some metaphysical tools to be put to work for its legitimate reproduction. Recent examples of the sancrification of Erdoğan through various Islamic rituals and practices need to be rethought within this context. [17]

It is also evident that this informal power structure has also helped Erdoğan and the AKP governments to escape from the dictates of the financial markets as well as the formal international commitments of the state to an extent. For the informal and privatised budget formed through ‘commissions’ has existed parallel to that of the formal state and helped ensure the continuation of politically-driven state expenditures in violation of globally-imposed monetary austerity policies. This is best examplified by the charity regularly distributed by the AKP municipalities to the poor in return for votes.[18] This informal power structure has also enabled the counteracting of international  measures such as the EU- and US-imposed oil embargo against Iran through well-established international networks.[19] This highlights ironically the corrupt roots and vulnerable nature of the long-praised ‘political stability’ in Turkey, which ensured the stay of hot money in the country safely until the global capitalist crisis hit Europe. AKP has hitherto displayed a considerable success in administering this politically risky game by behaving politically-correct in the internationally-watched economic processes due to the economy’s strategic dependence on the inflow of short-term financial capital. Thus, while corruption has been getting institutionalised in the AKP’s relations with the Islamic enterprises, various tactical moves have been made to prove the transparency of the state such as the live broadcasts on television of the tenders made for the privatisation of large-scale state enterprises.[20]

Conclusion

The recent controversy between Erdoğan and the Central Bank on the level of interest rates[21] informs that the co-management of the formal and informal power structures might not always be possible, and it is the rule of money that ultimately defines the limits of this strategy. In an international conjuncture in which financial capital was about to leave the so-called emerging markets and threatening the latter with deep economic and political crises, Erdoğan pressured over the Central Bank to lower the interest rates. This was a policy that did nothing but accelerate the outflight of capital, and was associated with Erdoğan’s concern to give an impetus to the stagnating real estate and construction sectors with cheap credits to ensure in return the growth of the commission pools before the general elections in June 2015. This indicates the unsustainability of government’s hitherto successful Janus-faced strategy, and that the country would be at a politically strategic crossroads soon.

As this short evaluation has proposed, corrupt practices institutionalised within a personalised state structure under the AKP rule constitute a fundamental challenge to the reproduction of the modern bourgeois form of the capitalist state in Turkey. They imply that the AKP under the leadership of Erdoğan has attempted to put to work some pre-capitalist strategies of political command to manage the crisis-ridden implications of neoliberal transformations in Turkey which have been in compatibility so far with the party’s concern to implement its specific Islamist agenda.  On the other side, the question of whether this process is specific to Turkey or would shed light to the current patterns of political change elsewhere[22] is one to be carefully problematised to make sense of the global changes in the making within today’s financialised capitalism.

Associate Professor Pınar Bedirhanoğlu, International Relations Department, Middle East Technical University (METU), Ankara

Please cite this publication as follows:

Bedirhanoğlu, P. (May, 2015), “Corruption and State under the AKP Rule in Turkey: Retreat from the Modern Bourgeois State?”,Vol. IV, Issue 5, pp.35-44, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=8817)

Endnotes

[1]I would like to thank Şebnem Oğuz and Özlem Kaygusuz for reading the first draft of this essay and provide me with invaluable comments.

[2]For Erdoğan’s Aljazeera interview see:

http://www.haberaktuel.com/basbakan-erdogan-el-cezire-ye-konustu-haberi-848747.html

[Accessed Date 19 March 2015].

[3]See interview with Deniz Yıldırım in BirGün, Kitap Eki Söyleşisi, 5 Ocak 2013 for the argument on neoliberal sultanate, and Şebnem Oğuz (2012) “Türkiye’de Kapitalizmin Küreselleşmesi ve Neoliberal Otoriter Devletin İnşası,”(Globalisation of Capitalism and the Construction of the Neoliberal Authoritarian State in Turkey) Türk Tabibler Birliği, Mesleki Sağlık ve Güvenlik Dergisi, 2-48 for the argument on authoritarian statism. 

[4]K. Jain Arvind (2001), “Corruption: A Review,” Journal of Economic Surveys, Vol.15, No.1, 73.

[5]Cengiz Kırlı (2006), “Yolsuzluğun İcadı: 1840 Ceza Kanunu, İktidar ve Bürokrasi (Invention of Corruption: 1840 Criminal Law, Power and Bureaucracy), Tarih ve Toplum, No.4, 45-119.

[6]See Luigi Manzetti and Charles H Blake (1996) “Market Reforms and Corruption in Latin America: New Means for Old Ways”, Review of International Political Economy, Vol.3, No.4, 1996, 662-697; and Pınar Bedirhanoğlu (2002) “Rusya’da Kapitalist Dönüşüm Süreci, Yolsuzluk ve Neoliberalizm” (Capitalist Transformation Process, Corruption and Neoliberalism in Russia), Toplum ve Bilim, No.92, 217-233.

[7]See Nedim Şener (2001), Tepeden Tırnağa Yolsuzluk (Corruption from Top to Bottom), Siyahbeyaz, Metis Güncel, İstanbul, 66-73.

[8]Russian President Yeltsin’s advisors in the early 1990s, who had been alarmed by the former nomenklatura’s acquiring control of state assets in Poland and Russia during the privatisation process, once publicly announced that unless these people ‘are appeased, bribed, or disenfranchised, privatisation cannot proceed.’ See Olivier Blanchard, Maxim Boycko, Marek Dabrowski, Rudiger Dornbusch, Richard Layard, Andrei Shleifer, Post-Communist Reform, Pain and Progress, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: the MIT Press, 1993, 39. For a similar discussion on the positive role of neo-patrimonialism for political stability, see Robin Theobald (1999) “So what really is the problem about corruption?” Third World Quarterly, Vol.20, No.3, 493.

[9]David Harvey (2006) “Neo-liberalism as Creative Destruction”, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, Vol.88, No.2, 155.

[10] World Bank (2000) Anticorruption in Transition, A Contribution to the Policy Debate, Washington DC, xvi.

[11]See “Bilal, Evdeki Paraları Sıfırla” (Bilal, Eliminate all the Moneys at Home), Cumhuriyet, 24.2.2014 [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/siyaset/44675/_Bilal_evdeki_paralari_sifirla__.html

[12]Buğra and Savaşkan take notice of the rise of new business groups with little previous business experience in relation to this ‘politically supported capital accumulation’ process.  See Ayşe Buğra and Osman Savaşkan (2014) New Capitalism in Turkey, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA, 21.

[13]See, http://www.cnnturk.com/haber/turkiye/17-aralik-operasyonunun-savcilari-gorevden-alindi [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], and “AK Parti’den Fireli Aklama” (AKP’s Clearance with Absentees) [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:

http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/28012968.asp

[14]See, http://www.turgev.org/hakkimizda/hakkimizda [Accessed Date 19 March 2015].

[15]See, http://www.habervitrini.com/ekonomi/iste-ak-partili-isadamlari-177426/ [Accessed Date 19 March 2015]. See also Buğra and Savaşkan, 2014: 12.

[16]Buğra and Savaşkan, 2014: 18.

[17]There are news in Turkish newspapers informing that Erdoğan was defined as the envoy of God, or that touching him was announced to be a form of worship. Remarkably, celebrations organized by the AKP for Erdoğan’s birthday in 2015 resembled to those that were organized for the Prophet’s birthday. See “Peygamber ilan edecekler: Erdoğan için Kutlu Doğum,” (They will declare him Prophet: Happy Birthday for Erdoğan) “Başbakana dokunmak bile ibadetmiş,” (It is worship to touch the PM)  and “Erdoğan’ı sonunda peygamber ilan ettiler” (They finally announced him as Prophet) [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:

http://www.gazetecileronline.com/

[18]See Zafer Yılmaz (2013) “AKP ve Devlet Hayırseverliği: Minnet Ekonomisi, Borç Toplumu ve Siyasal Sermaye Birikimi,” (AKP and State Charity: Economy of Gratitude, Debt Society and Political Capital Accumulation), Toplum ve Bilim, No.128, 32-70.

[19]Mustafa Sönmez (2013) “Cemaat ‘altın’ı buldu; ‘Yolsuzluktan’ devam…” (Cemaat has found gold: Continue with the ‘corruptions’…) [Accessed Date 19 March 2015]. Available at:

http://mustafasonmez.net/?p=3986

[20]The tenders made for the privatization of TÜPRAŞ, Türk Telecom, and ERDEMİR in 2005 can be mentioned as examples.

[21]See “Erdogan pushed for Turkey’s central bank to cut interest rates.” [Accessed Date 19 March 2015], Available at:

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/71b57a60-bbcb-11e3-84f1-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3UYXYZam4

[22]Similarities observed between the general corruption format of today’s Turkish state and with that of Azerbaijan for instance, where the Heydar Aliyev Foundation fulfils the role of commission pools, imply that there are some general dynamics at work that bring countries with different historical backgrounds along comparable lines.

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