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State of Sleaze

Erdoğan’s authoritarian hustle


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan occupies a strange place in his country’s beleaguered political imagination. He continues to accrue power in the wake of last year’s abortive attempt to force him out of office. Yet what does his time in power represent? Does it represent the ultimate perversion of Western and secularist ideals that Kemal Atatürk inaugurated in reforming the Turkish state of the early twentieth century? Or has Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (known as the AK Party) merely presided over a cynical power grab, smuggling in its own agenda of Islamist politics, but continuing a form of authoritarian rule that has existed since Atatürk and appears remarkably resilient? These questions grow increasingly urgent as Turkey teeters on the brink of a permanent state of dictatorial emergency: the hopeless and absurd show trials of mainstream journalists; the jailing of the Kurdish opposition leader Selahattin Demirtaş and hundreds of people from his legal political party; the widespread purges of thousands of Kurds and Gülenists from state institutions, schools, police forces and the military; the enshrining of Erdoğan’s ever-expanding power in the form of legislative hijinks in the parliament; aggression and warmongering in Syria and Iraq, and against Turkey’s own Kurdish population.

Either way, after nearly a decade spent in and around the political convulsions in Turkey, I’ve found most explanations of the rise of Erdoğan and his AK Party to be unsatisfying. Within Turkish opposition political circles, the consensus view, in its broad outlines, goes like this: Erdoğan was always an authoritarian personality; power was always his primary goal; all the talk before the elections of 2002 and 2007 about human rights and democracy was a ruse, a smoke screen. In Turkish, the tactic goes by the name takkiye, a term that means religious deception. In this case, dissenting Turks insist, the true believers taken in by the act were daft and hopeful Westerners and Turkish liberals—constituencies long desperate to see moderate, democratic Muslim rule in a Western-aligned state. Once their affections had been captured, presto: the Islamists could deftly pull off a putsch, and their real agenda could be achieved.

This “real agenda,” per the opposition, was to transform Turkey’s proudly secular, modernizing state into something close to the Islamist regime in Iran. But fifteen years of Erdoğan’s strongman rule has instead produced a hybrid cult of authoritarian personality: a cross between Putin’s Russia and Modi’s India—and some would even say Trump’s America. As always, Turkey remains Turkey, defiantly resistant to glib comparisons and historical analogies, with its own historical trajectories and political culture. Many hoped that under Erdoğan, as with Atatürk before him, Turks would produce a unique Muslim democracy. But so far the AK Party has created a new and dangerous kind of Muslim autocracy propelled by a buoyant (though faltering) popular vote that is ultimately sustained by little more than a whole lot of money.

The Purity Test

In the beginning, Turkish voters rallied to the AK Party on the basis of its own tirelessly self-advertised competence. AK leaders were hard-working and well-organized, skilled at revamping ailing state services, and brilliant at mobilizing long-existing but dormant social networks. So many Turks—even the ones who hate the AK Party—remember the day it became easier to hook up their telephone, their natural gas, their water, the miracle of seeing their bank account linked to their electricity bills, or suddenly being able to bathe more than twice a week.

It’s clear that Erdoğan has long wanted to be Turkey’s absolute ruler. But how he managed it—this religious outsider, this Black Turk—still remains something of a mystery.

For many years, these mundane but vital improvements to daily life had more to do with AK’s success than religion, and as late as 2007 many Turks were willing to avert their eyes to what was happening behind the scenes. By 2009, amendments to the judicial system were starting to send the country into chaos. These changes to the system, including the military’s diminished status, had much to do with the party’s accumulation of power, but they don’t entirely explain how Turkey went from aspirationally democratic to one-man rule in a decade.

A fairly fatalist answer simply points to the calendar: Erdoğan’s party has stayed in power for a decade—several years too long. But there’s a question-begging logic to that claim: it’s a feature of all authoritarian regimes to secure a long-term hold on power, so what’s cited a cause seems more likely to be a symptom. The larger question lurking just beneath the debate about the AK Party’s descent into strongman rule opens onto a deeper quandary: Is it Turkey or is it them? In other words, was the AK Party uniquely corrupt, power-hungry, and undemocratic, or was there a deeper reflex in the Turkish state for the consolidation of power under a one-party, one-man model? It’s clear that Erdoğan has long wanted to be Turkey’s absolute ruler. But how he managed it—this religious outsider, this Black Turk— still remains a multi-pronged story.

At first glance, the title of the book Politics of Favoritism in Public Procurement in Turkey wouldn’t seem to offer much in the way of answering these big questions. Still, the book, written by Esra Çeviker Gürakar, a professor at Okan University in Istanbul, illuminates one aspect of the Erdoğan mystery. Gürakar focuses on the steady transfer of wealth in the Erdoğan years from a previously secular elite to a rising Islamic business class. In this telling, what reform-minded Turks and Western observers alike now view as a dramatic, even romantic and tragic tale of a man of the people who fought against a corrupt elite only to become its oppressor, comes across as something more grindingly mundane. As Gürakar tells it, Erdoğan’s story is a story about bids for government contracts.

Getting the Business

Turkey has always cultivated notoriously corrupt and exclusive business practices. Since the 1970s, several big families, eventually consolidated under the business organization called TÜSIAD, have dominated the corporate landscape. Under their sway, what was perceived as a secularist elite—a handful of companies—appeared to absorb virtually all of the state resources and state wealth. The majority of Turks, especially those in the hinterlands working outside of TÜSIAD’s orbit, couldn’t access the halls of power in Ankara. The country still operated within a statist framework: the government providing its citizens with the bulk of services, while overseeing the broader course of economic development. Long accustomed to calling the shots, the Turkish state would also turn out to be an exhausting impediment to democracy. In lieu of generating traditional interest-group rivalries among citizens, it would encourage a kind of mafia mentality among its constituents. “The existence of a strong centralized state that distributed economic resources meant that all sorts of coalitions were established to get those resources,” Gürakar writes. Pious Islamist businessmen realized they needed to form their own gangs, too.

After the 1980 military coup, staged mostly to quell widespread street violence between leftist and rightist groups and get rid of a hapless and squabbling government, the secularist generals who’d seized power resolved that the only way to counter dangerous radical leftist ideas was to suffuse the country with state-controlled religious teachings, while also opening up the country to global markets. Among the many dramatic changes of the 1980s was that public services would be contracted out to the private sector via public procurement contracts.

The economy expanded rapidly, the country began to industrialize, and suddenly a new middle class, comprised also of Islamic businessmen, discovered that previously closed doors were open to them. They helped found new business organizations—MÜSIAD, and some decades later TUSKON—that were anchored by shared conservative Islamic beliefs, and bound by loyalty formed out of a sense of grievance over past discrimination. A surge in capitalist activity meant shiny new imports, but also a sort of Wild West atmosphere where bureaucrats and businessmen profited jointly at the people’s expense. Between 1983 and 2000, Gürakar explains, the state procurement law was so weak that corruption was rampant; “there was no central agency responsible for the regulation and monitoring of the public procurement processes.” Millions of dollars were wasted on infamous public projects like the renovation of the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn and the privatization of the state water company.

In 2001, a financial crisis nearly ravaged Turkey’s economy. As the IMF and the World Bank took over, many Turks were ready to adopt new business practices, and voters no longer trusted the old political parties. At the same time, an era of regulatory market reforms (as prescribed by the IMF) were sweeping the globe, and transforming the role of the state, Gürakar writes, into a helpmeet of feverishly globalizing capital. Many Turks wanted to improve their own business, legal, and human rights standards to gain approval from, and admission to, the European Union. In 2003, the Turkish parliament enacted a new public procurement law to make “public spending more efficient and transparent and depoliticizing the procurement process.” The new law was designed to make Turkey clean.

Procured and Abandoned

A few months earlier, however, something unprecedented in Turkish politics had happened: a brand-new political party, one not associated with the corruption of the past, won the national elections. It was called the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and its leader was a former mayor of Istanbul named Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The initials “AK” even meant white, or pure. The suggestion was that as an Islamic party, its behavior would be naturally more moral. After the long reign of procurement and payola, many Turkish voters greeted the AK program with open arms. With the advent of a new “single-party government with MPs consisting of Islamist opinions and business leaders who praise values such as equality, justice, and morality,” Gürakar writes, there was a corresponding upward adjustment of “public expectations on more equal social and economic policies and more transparent and uncorrupt practices.” This new community would soon create, one scholar wrote, a “mind-blowing social, political, economic and systemic transformation” in Turkey. Under AK’s assured and competent stewardship of the Turkish state, “religion has become an important component of forming ‘connections’ with the government,” Gürakar observes, and a newly networked group of nascent devout business entrepreneurs would begin to prosper “through the opportunity spaces created by the ruling AKP.”

After the long reign of procurement and payola, many Turkish voters
greeted the AK program
with open arms.

But Erdoğan, his party, his businessman friends, and their wordview, were not nearly as fresh or new to the scene as they claimed. Longtime observers of Turkish politics knew this well; Islamist politicians had come to power in Turkey as early as the 1970s, beginning with the election of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan (who was forced out of power in a soft military coup in 1997). Even the mainstream Atatürk-loving center-right parties were more conservative than not. By the time Erdoğan was elected, the right-leaning flanks of Turkish society had long supplied the base for the most powerful and popular parties in government. The AK Party had come into power by perfecting a populist rhetoric more explicitly Islamist that also promised its constituents more than a piece of the pie. In the process, he exploited a widespread belief that an impenetrable and prejudiced elite should effectively turn over its wealth and influence to a previously oppressed business class. “Those business groups whose mental models had been shaped within the existing institutional structure,” Gürakar writes, “perceived themselves as the new insiders or the new privileged clientele. Hence, they expected AKP to speak this time to their interests.” And these new businessmen promptly zeroed in on something they saw as an impediment to their own rapid growth: the tough new public procurement law designed by the IMF and the World Bank.

It’s important to recall in this connection that corruption did not gradually overtake the AK Party as its term in office waxed on, as its leaders amassed more power and made more enemies. In reality, the AK seemed to believe that fudging the rules was crucial to surmounting its political disadvantages as so-called newcomers. Take infrastructure work—a pet vanity specialty of strongmen leaders everywhere from Ankara to Washington D.C. Before his election, Erdoğan had promised to build fifteen thousand kilometers of highways—the first of many mega-projects the new leader would launch, including new construction for bridges, tunnels, malls and airports. The state coffers that the AK Party newly had access to were empty, however, and thus mega-construction was prohibited by the proposed new public procurement law. Erdoğan wanted to postpone the law. “The current version of the PPL [public procurement law] serves the interest of fifty-sixty firms only. I will not leave the construction work of fifteen-thousand-kilometer or so highways to sixty contractors,” Erdoğan said. Later he added, “I am accountable to the public, not to you”—in other words, to the law. Many of his supporters perceieved this behavior as merely keeping campaign promises. The PPL’s provenance as an IMF-approved mandate made it unpopular in some quarters, vulnerable to faux-populist demagoguery, particularly in view of the Turkish people’s distrust of foreign meddling.

At the time, the military and the judiciary were still powerful in Turkey, and wary the new Islamist party. Erdoğan was forced to scrap his plans – for a moment. As Gürakar chronicles, over the next decade, the AK Party, with its firm parliamentary majority, instead would make more than 150 amendments to the public procurement law, hastening its constituents’ ability to win contracts and acquire vast wealth—and along the way, greatly solidify their power in an Erdoğan regime that functions on open graft. There are many despicable forms of corruption in Turkey, of course, but the AK Party seems particularly adept at carrying out a kind of legalized corruption. Because AK leaders control every leading political and judiciary institution, they can just make up new rules that suit their shady aims and call it the law.

Asocial Construction

Indeed, nothing pleased the party more than switching around words in legal documents in order to be able to destroy a park to build a mall, or bulldoze an entire Kurdish or Roma neighborhood of beautiful nineteenth-century buildings in order to build an ugly neighborhood of twenty-first century condo complexes. As the years passed, the country became a construction site. When people ask me how things feel in Turkey, I feel I must break things down into categories. “There is the political despair,” I say, “and then there is the construction.”

To be fair, much of the infrastructure the AK Party built was sorely needed: the metros and the smooth roads, the hospitals and maybe even that Bosphorus tunnel. But it is impossible not to see how one environmentally noxious mega-project begets another—i.e., if you build a new airport, you need a new metro system, endless highways, and a new bridge to get over the Bosphorus to get to that highway. And it all adds up to another way in which Erdoğan can continue currying favor with his favorite dozen businessmen. That amiable arrangement ensures, in turn, that the AK Party, which always, even aesthetically, exuded the sleek aura of a corporation, is so wealthy that no other political party can come close to matching its campaign efforts. “Turkey’s corporatist and clientelist policy-making structure has soon proven to be resistant to change,” Gürakar concludes. “It has indeed been strengthened by the dominant coalition of the ‘Islamist counter-elite.’” What Gürakar also brilliantly shows, however, is how the interests of this counter-elite naturally corresponded with Erdoğan’s eventual disregard for the rest of the very democratic reforms he once championed.

In her telling, members of this counter-elite had grander ambitions than merely taking over the existing European export pathways forged by their more secular-minded predecessors. The AK Party wanted to expand the distribution of rents to people who would further integrate with world markets and, most important, the Middle East, North Africa, and the former Soviet republics. Suddenly, the AK Party didn’t need Europe for business nearly as much as Turkish business elites used to. And that meant, in turn, that the AK Party didn’t feel compelled to comply with the EU reforms that had largely been responsible for its rise to power in 2002 and 2007. As Turkey opened up its markets and focused more on the East than the West, the government had “larger room for maneuvering and increased . . . bargaining power,” Gürakar writes. The PPL law was repeatedly criticized by the European Council for many ills—a clear lack of transparency, and the absence of any coherent legal regulatory framework, among them. But now that AK had access to the entire former Ottoman empire, Erdoğan didn’t worry about European caviling over his dirty bids.

Turkey’s expansion into the lands of the former Ottoman empire inevitably meant something else, too, which was war. Erdoğan’s business interests compelled him to meddle in the war in Syria, early on calling for Assad’s removal, aiding jihadi fighters, and offering shelter to three million Syrian refugees. The terrified and spineless leaders of Western Europe well knew that a large, unsettled, and potentially disruptive refugee crisis was now looming on their doorstep—and so they began looking the other way as Turkey’s own human rights situation rapidly deteriorated. Today, for example, the Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş, the democratically elected head of Turkey’s fourth largest political party, is still in jail on trumped-up charges that he collaborated with the violent Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK. As part of the unspoken conspiracy of silence surrounding the refugees, for a long time no Western leaders kicked up a fuss over Demirtas’s or anyone else’s imprisonment—or the scores of other abuses Erdoğan has committed since his post-2016 crackdown.

Under indifferent Western eyes, Turkey is little
more than a congeries of glittering new skyscrapers and flashy art biennials.

The extent to which the Turkish Republic was ever “kept in line,” as Western diplomats like to say, is hard to assess. Europe’s longstanding method of seeking to democratize Turkey by economic punishment and reward has at best yielded equivocal returns— and more to the point, is in many ways morally repugnant to consider. Would Turkey have become less corrupt had it become more European? It’s a terrible question because it assumes that European governance is somehow more democratic by cultural essentialist measures. Regardless, however, this history of European aspiration was a long one in Turkey; many of the reforms urged by the European Union in the first years of the twenty-first century were ones Turks wanted, too. Part of Erdoğan’s revolution was to rebel against this relationship; Gürakar’s book illuminates how the deterioriation of the Turkish-European relationship, coupled with Erdoğan’s increasingly violent Middle Eastern imperial aspirations, hastened his accumulation of power.

Erdoğan, of course, is more than content to continue radically remaking the country’s lead business and political institutions in his own image until there’s not much of a functional difference between himself and the state. That may prove to be just fine, over the long run, with the nervous administrators of the globalized neoliberal New World Order. After all, the narrative of power in the Middle East falling to an angry, aggrieved Islamist is a familiar one, and offers the incalculable bonus of minimizing Western accountability. If anything, focusing on the person of Erdoğan as another ayatollah-in-the-making works, perversely, to feed the myth that sober guidance from the aeries of Davos and Brussels is the key to Turkey’s responsible integration into the global scene. The fragile democratizing Turkish state might have been able to resist Erdoğan’s total capture, this lament goes, had it just had a little more outside help.

For much of the twentieth century, instead of ever reckoning forthrightly with the realities of power in Turkey, most of the West was happy to countenance military dictatorship and human rights abuses as long as the country remained a faithful Cold War ally, and in fact encouraged Turkey’s turn to open markets and the sort of state-stewarded Islam that brought about an Erdoğan in the first place. After September 11, the United States and Europe and many of its journalists, too, preferred to gush over Turkey’s illusion of calm and capitalist economic miracle. Under Western eyes, Turkey was little more than a congeries of glittering new skyscrapers and flashy hotels, with cosmopolitan Istanbul serving as the “capital of cool,” as one magazine put it. Anyone ranting about something as tiresome as public procurement would have been drowned out by all the fun.