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Column: Online Petition Drive in Turkey Attempts to Force Anti-Corruption Reforms

The international “clean government” group, Transparency International, is launching a public on-line petition drive to pressure the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to adopt a series of anti-corruption reforms.

The campaign comes in the wake of a wide-ranging scandal that has precipitated a political crisis sure to influence the outcome of upcoming municipal and national elections.  

Transparency International Turkey Chairman Oya Ozarslan, in announcing the petition drive, said “while a focus on proper and thorough investigation of corruption allegations is important, it is just as important to tackle the main shortcomings of the Turkish system and start working on improving it as quickly as possible.”

The corruption issue is seen as a major factor in upcoming Istanbul and other municipal elections on March 30, which observers say may portend the outcome of Turkey’s presidential election in August. A survey published on January 9 by the polling firm Sonar puts current public support for the AKP at 42.3 percent, down from 44 percent in July, 2013, and 47 percent in January, 2012. Erdogan, incidentally, won his third term in July, 2011, with 50 percent support.

Erdogan eyes presidency

But now, Erdogan has to move on. AKP rules prevent someone from holding a particular office beyond three terms. That leaves the presidency as his next political option, a post currently held by Abdullah Gul. So far, there is no public indication that Gul would agree to step aside to clear the way for Erdogan, possibly by running for prime minister.

As for the Istanbul mayor’s race, AKP’s hold on the city is being threatened by the rising popularity of Mustafa Sanguil, currently the mayor of Istanbul’s Sisli district. Sanguil is the candidate of the secular Republican People’s Party, which has the Turkish language initials CHP. The Istanbul mayor’s post has been a traditional springboard for those with national ambitions. Erdogan held that office during the 1990s before becoming Prime Minister in 2002.  

Erodogan’s most recent corruption problems erupted on December 17, when authorities announced an investigation involving the sons of three government ministers and several business leaders. This probe reportedly centers on possible bribery connected to construction projects, and on money transfers involving Iran in violation of international sanctions.

The need for Erdogan and the AKP to respond to this scandal produced a housecleaning on December 25. Resignations came from the three Ministers whose sons were caught up in the corruption probe.

Targeting corruption

Erdogan’s response to the corruption scandal, and declining AKP poll numbers, has been to go on the offensive. One of his targets is Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, a onetime supporter whose millions of followers made up a notable part of the AKP’s electoral base. Gulen, who lives in the United States, broke with Erdogan after the Turkish government shut down schools connected with him and his movement.   

Gulen has enjoyed support among Turkey’s judges and prosecutors, and with police. Because of that, the recent sudden removal of some 350 police officers in Ankara is seen by some as both reprisal and an effort to halt the corruption investigation. One is Milliyet newspaper columnist Kadri Gursel, who told The New York Times, “This is a panic attack by government acting in haste to prevent further corruption probes.”

The judiciary, and its role in dealing with corruption, is a sensitive issue for both Erdogan and for TI-Turkey’s Ozarslan, who says “In such a situation, government should avoid to appear to restrict the powers of the judiciary, but should make the necessary changes to put the politics branch in order.”

TI-Turkey’s five point improvement plan is headed by a call for passage of a Political Ethics Law applied to members of parliament. The proposed code of conduct for MPs includes regulations covering gifts and hospitality, restrictions on post-parliament employment for lawmakers, listing all contacts with lobbyists.

Another aspect involves enacting a requirement that all public officials, and high ranking party officials, disclose their assets annually via the Internet, and that these declarations be audited. Along with that would be new regulations covering political campaign financing for both candidates and parties. In parallel, the reforms would also establish and protect a system of independent monitoring of elections.

The TI-Turkey proposal also demands that any parliamentary immunity from prosecution must not extend to cover allegations of corruption or related criminal charges.

Achieving 'good governance'

Transparency International pegs Turkey at #53 on its recently released “2013 Corruption Perceptions Index” covering 175 countries. This is a one-notch improvement over its 2012 ranking. Another “good governance” organization, Global Financial Integrity, reported in December, 2013 that during the period from 2002 to 2011, $37.28 billion was illicitly extracted through tax avoidance, false invoicing and other means.

How Erdogan and the AKP address corruption, according to some, goes beyond upcoming elections to the fabric of Turkey itself. “This crisis and the way the government responded to this crisis, tells us that the political reforms the government has [under]taken in the last 10 years, are reversible,” says Professor Ihsan Dhagi at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. He also told the VOA Turkish Service, “It tells us a mindset that democratic reforms, rule of law, separation of powers are allowed and tolerated to the extent that it perpetuates the authority of the government. When these institutions, values and virtues go against the government, or start to enhance the opposition, they cannot be secure.”

Henri Barkey, a former State Department policy planner, said the power wielded by Erdogan and the AKP needs restraints to curb the prevalence of corruption. “Now,” he told VOA, “we have a prime minister and a party that is far, far, far too powerful and so we need to create, there has to be a balance in the society, but the only way to do it is through constitutional reform.”

Jeffrey Young

Jeffrey Young came to the “Corruption” beat after years of doing news analysis, primarily on global strategic issues such as nuclear proliferation.  During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include VOA-TV, where he created the “How America Works” and “How America Elects” series, and the “Focus” news analysis unit.

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