Corruption and AKP, Istanbul

By Arda İbikoğlu, M.A.I.S/Ph.D. alumnus.

Insight from Istanbul, Turkey.

This post was also posted on Dr. İbikoğlu’s blog.

AKP’s acronym stands for Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, i.e. Justice and Development Party. For years, the leaders of the party preferred using AK Parti. As you might know, “ak” means “white” in Turkish. The obvious reference in “AK Parti” was to cleanliness, transparency and innocence. In essence, the party climbed to power in the wake of many corruption scandals which marginalized mainstream parties such as ANAP and DYP in the 1990s. Fast forward a decade or so, and many AKP leaders, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, are now facing allegations of corruption through leaked tapes of phone-tapping.

The first wave of these tapes emerged on December 17, 2013, when many high profile figures were taken into custody by the police for interrogation. These figures included the sons of three ministers in the cabinet, an Azeri business tycoon, and the CEO of a state of owned bank. The police had recovered millions of Turkish Liras and foreign currency hidden in some of the apartments.

I might try to provide a full chronological account of what happened since December 17 in a later post, but the government simply identified the allegations of corruption, the leaked tapes, and the police operation as yet another attempt at forcefully removing AKP from power – a coup. This time, the attacking power was neither the “military,” nor the “deep state.” It was the “parallel state.” Erdoğan and other AKP leaders identified the Fethullah Gülen movement (an Islam-inspired movement, also called Cemaat or the Hizmet movement) as the parallel state which allegedly controlled key nodes in the police and judiciary. Cemaat and AKP had cooperated since the latter’s establishment in 2001. For reasons yet to be found out, the cooperation ended in late 2013 and AKP and Cemaat went for each other’s throat. AKP leaders tried to discredit the tapes and police operations by arguing that the “timing was meaningful.” In their argumentation, the prosecutors and the police of the Cemaat accumulated tapes and cases against prominent AKP figures over time to circulate them at the most suitable time when it would hurt the most.

The AKP government reacted swiftly against the police and the prosecutors. Hundreds of police chiefs and officers were removed from office over the following weeks. Eventually those prosecutors who were in charge of the corruption case were reassigned as well. After these removals, there simply was no hope left for a decent investigation, prosecution and trial. Turkish political arena is familiar to instrumental exploitation of the law, but not to such blatant disregard of the law by those in power. I would like to come back to this topic in later posts, but today I want to talk about AKP’s rapid burial under allegations of corruption, despite its legislative strength and executive power, which successfully evades judicial control for the moment. How could AKP sink under such allegations when they appeared most powerful?

The answer lies in two main institutional factors: 1) AKP motto that prioritizes “getting things done” and “providing services”; and 2) Increased personification of AKP under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

1) Before forming the AKP and becoming the prime minister, Erdoğan had served as the mayor of Istanbul for many years in 1990s. He was renowned for getting Istanbul in order and providing many services which were neglected before him. As the mayor, he fixed the problems with garbage collection and improved public transportation among other issues. It is my belief that Erdoğan approached the governance of Turkey with a similar mindset. Within this frame of mind, Turkey faced important infrastructural deficiencies and Erdoğan would fix these issues. It is not a coincidence that the main item in AKP’s developmental agenda had always been construction: Construction of roads, bridges, houses, etc… Recently, the AKP government has been adamant about building a third bridge over the Bosphorus. Another important (crazy?) project under discussion has been to open a second canal to the west of Istanbul that would mimic the Bosphorus… One of the key new official agencies in this construction oriented framework was TOKİ (Housing Development Administration), which has been operating in almost every urban center and beyond to build new large residential neighborhoods.

I am sure many citizens approve these developmental projects which turned Turkey into one large construction site over the last decade. Here, I do not want to discuss and evaluate the costs and benefits of a developmental agenda that prioritizes construction beyond anything else. However, it is a fact that such an endeavor fosters a colossal construction and real estate market. It also requires readjustment of city plans to accommodate these new roads, bridges, and neighborhoods. It requires destruction of old neighborhoods and relocation of many residents. I think it is at this critical juncture where the seeds of AKP’s burial under allegations of corruption were sown.

In its haste to “develop” Turkey through construction, AKP wanted to “get things done” quickly. Judicial controls, legal requirements, and local assemblies were hurdles in AKP’s path to development and modernization. In AKP’s view, courts were throwing away valuable projects, and legal requirements were causing delays in important projects. I strongly believe that AKP institutionalized extralegal practices over the years to cut corners short. In their bid to “provide better services,” AKP oversaw the crystallization of a collective ethos within its own ranks that sacrificed the law in exchange for rapid progress. We can come up with many examples but I will suffice here with a new case I read in my friend Tuna’s forthcoming article on privatization of Sümerbank factories and lands across the country.

The Sümerbank (a state-owned textile factory) in Malatya, which was situated on 129 thousand square meters, was privatized in 2004. A conglomerate of local firms had bid and bought the factory and its premises. As had been the case for such acts of privatization in industrial zones, the factory was soon demolished and plans for building a shopping mall were underway simultaneously with a zoning change that turned the area into a commercial zone. In exchange for the zone change, a part of the land was given to the Municipality as the site of the new municipal building, (which is now operational,) free of charge! In addition to the shopping mall, which has been a huge success, new plans have been underway to build a private hospital, a five-star Hilton hotel, and a large mosque on the rest of the land.

This is a perfect AKP win-win scenario: i) A formerly inefficient factory was reintroduced into urban space with no cost to the public; ii) A new municipal building was built with almost no cost to the public; iii) With a new hospital, hotel, and mosque, a livelier urban space and economy was promoted with no cost to the public. I will not delve into the topic of lost jobs at the old Sümerbank factory, or the alternative ways in which that land could have been utilized, or the extra income that the dubious privatization could have provided if the factory land were declared as a commercial zone at the outset. Such routes would simply fail to achieve rapid urban development that the AKP leadership adamantly seeks. Here, I am interested in that collective ethos that seriously perceives this particular path of urban development as successful municipal service. In an ideal type AKP privatization of a public asset, the public would be appeased with no-cost urban development, businesses would thrive with favorable land sales or zone-changes, and those happy businesses would grace the public with donations or would renovate public buildings for free. Within this conception, which prioritizes fast-paced construction at the expense of the law, lies the roots of institutionalized corruption that now bogs AKP down. Because, this type of extralegal actions could (and did) easily degenerate. (I call these actions extralegal not because they defy the law, but because they defy a certain sense of right and justice. To be honest, zoning changes and public donations appear legal on paper. However, it is also clear that they are motivated by favoritism.)

2) So far, I have assumed that AKP was motivated by doing good, i.e. “getting things done” and “providing services.” I will not succumb to the assumption of evilness that AKP members have always been corrupt. I just do not believe that large bodies of people happen to be bad. Instead, we have to search for institutional structures that condition them to act in such ways. As I argued, AKP’s particular conception of rapid urban development set the stage for an ethos of extralegal activities. However, how could the entire party (including its almighty pious leader) get involved in corruption? There still seems to be a huge gap between doing business in murky extralegal terrain and outright corruption, especially within a party whose basis of foundation was being clean and transparent. I believe the answer lies within increased personification of AKP under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As a consequence, AKP failed to develop necessary institutional intra-party mechanisms to combat and prevent corruption within ranks.

Over the years, AKP increasingly became a one-man party. Especially since the 2011 elections, AKP representatives have been hesitant about making definitive comments on key issues that fall outside the boundaries of their immediate roles. Erdoğan has increasingly become the sole authoritative voice of the party. His recent conflicts with Bülent Arınç, the spokesperson of the cabinet and an important senior member of the AKP movement, portray the rising tensions within AKP over Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies.

Erdoğan’s increased control over the party is reminiscent of mid-20th century corporatist regimes around the world, where a single leader had represented the entire constituency through a vertically organized party structure. This single-man rule is naturally very jealous in sharing power. Political advancement within ranks is based on winning the favor of the leader. Then, it is not a coincidence that Erdoğan preferred to appoint a significant number of his old friends (for example, İdris Naim Şahin and Erdoğan Bayraktar) to crucial posts in the cabinet over the years. Erdoğan’s personal trust mattered the most.

I do not believe AKP was destined to follow this corporatist route. As Jenny White (2002) described in her important study, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics, AKP started out with a very active grasroots organization. This momentum could have formed the basis of a more participatory and accountable party structure that would enable more local participation within the party leadership. However, increased idolization and deification of Erdoğan did not allow the AKP to develop institutions, which would provide natural checks on abuse of authority. Increasingly, local AKP leaders felt accountable only to Erdoğan, but not to their own constituencies. I believe that the lack of institutional checks on local and national AKP leaders enabled the descent from extralegality to corruption.

Erdoğan’s governing style i) that perceived Turkey as one big municipality; ii) that anchored development in rapid urban construction projects at the expense of the law; iii) and that relied on personal networks of trust and friendship resulted in the simple impossibility of personally overseeing the transfers of huge sums of money. Getting public projects done for free eventually degenerated into collecting funds for the party, which degenerated into taking bribes. Simply, this is why democracies rely on judicial control and legal regulations to oversee such expenditures. When the law is overthrown to cut corners short, and alternative disciplinary mechanisms are not employed, corruption ensues. In Turkey, Erdoğan and AKP are now buried under it.


Arda İbikoğlu is an alumnus of the M.A. in International Studies Program. He also has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the UW and Middle East experts from JSIS served on his doctoral committee. He is an expert in Turkish and Middle East politics and his research focuses on Turkish political prisoners and changing state-society relations in Turkey from the Ottoman Empire to the present. He has published articles and book chapters on this subject, including an article featured in a Special Issue of Studies in Law, Politics, and Society that highlighted the “next generation” of interdisciplinary legal studies. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.

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