TURKISH WATERGATE : Professor Kalaycıoğlu: Turkey is having its own Watergate

13 January 2014 /YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN, İSTANBUL – This week’s guest for Monday Talk likens Turkey’s ever-widening corruption scandal to the Watergate scandal of the United States in 1972 as both scandals involve high-profile names, and information related to the scandals has been leaked in small pieces accumulating over time.

“We had the Watergate scandal in the United States — which appeared to be along these lines. There was a big effort by the Republican Party to cover it up at the time. Information about the scandal was leaked in small bits and accumulated over time. It looks somewhat like what is happening in Turkey today,” said Ersin Kalaycıoğlu, an esteemed professor of political science.

He also said that the government lost much of its legitimacy and the rule of law is at risk.

“Look at the declaration made by the speaker of the Grand National Assembly, Cemil Çiçek, who is number two in power: Article 138, the article that guarantees the independence of the judiciary, is now dead. That means that there is no independent judicial review,” he said.

When the corruption investigation erupted in mid-December, the prime minister sought to discredit the inquiry by calling it a “foreign plot” and “an attempt to damage the government made by a parallel state nested within the state.” He immediately ordered the removal of hundreds of police officers who contributed to the probe. The Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) initiated an investigation into four prosecutors involved in the corruption probe and two of the prosecutors were removed from the case. In addition, the government issued a proposal to restructure the HSYK. If adopted, the bill will give the government a tighter grip on the judiciary.

The Watergate scandal was a major political scandal as a result of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., and the Nixon administration’s attempted cover-up of its involvement. The scandal eventually led to the resignation of the Republican Party’s Richard Nixon, the president of the United States, in 1974. The scandal also resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction and incarceration of 43 people, dozens of whom were Nixon’s top administration officials.

Nobody yet knows what the results of the investigation in Turkey will be. But Professor Kalaycıoğlu, who specializes in political representation and participation, tells us specifics to Turkey in the scandal, whether or not early elections can be expected, whether or not a popular election can guarantee a democratic government, how the Turkish electorate behaves, where the economy is heading and more.

Were you expecting this development in Turkish politics?

I was expecting an increase in potentially corrupt practices mainly because there was a huge accumulation of power in the executive branch of the government, especially in the Prime Minister’s Office, and such an accumulation of power leads to an increase in corruption. This is the basic scientific fact of politics: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Is this true for every country?

Yes, this is true for every country. From the 18th century onwards, many countries tried to establish certain limitations on government, and limited government began to be the norm for a democratic government. There has been an increasing emphasis on transparency — in decision-making in relation to bidding on major infrastructural projects; in relation to budgetary accounts; limitations in gift giving and receiving; in relation to expenditures of decision makers; in executive and legislative expenditures of funds, etc. All of this has come under public scrutiny: Limitations have been placed, and those who do not abide by the rules have been eliminated. When people gain more power, they start to think they are invincible, and they think they can convince others that what they do is correct and just. This is a psychological inclination. Of course, an extreme level of this is a feeling of narcissism. A colleague, psychiatrist Professor Nevzat Tarhan argued on television about two months ago that he considers the prime minister of Turkey as being an example of narcissism.


There are claims by Turkish government officials that all of this is a part of an international plot to topple the government. What is your opinion about those claims?

First of all, we have to make sure that whether those claims have any truth or not. If they do not have any truth, if the alleged transactions have not taken place, if the alleged individuals do not have any kind of business deals, and everything that was done was within the limits of the rule of law, then we can look around for possible motives for the release of all this information about corruption. And then we can argue that there is a conspiracy with political goals.

If, however, those allegations are true, not only the allegations about money laundering, but also allegations about certain decisions of the National Security Council — lists were collected about people and they have been discriminated against — if this is correct, then of course arguments of conspiracy are secondary. It is not important who revealed it; the revealed fact in itself has its own merits. And if it is a violation of ethics and laws, then it has to be accounted for. Who made those allegations and why do not matter, so long as they are true. All over the world, such allegations are never made by government officials. Such allegations are usually made by the opposition, domestic or foreign, and they’re not illegitimate so long as there is truth in them. There is also another matter.

‘Toppling a government in a democracy part of the game’

 What is it?

Toppling a government in a democracy, so long as it is carried out through established and conventional channels of media and peaceful rallies and elections, is part of the game. And allegations will, of course, touch nerves and lead to the opposition’s protests. And the opposition is part of the game, too. So, toppling a government, unless it is through some kind of physical coercion, arms, a coup d’état, etc., is unacceptable. However, any other form is part of the democratic game, as it happens around the globe. We have to be careful in making comparisons, too. We had the Watergate scandal in the United States — which appeared to be along these lines. There was a big effort by the Republican Party to cover it up at the time. Information about the scandal was leaked in small bits and accumulated over time. It looks somewhat like what is happening in Turkey today.

You are saying that Turkey is having its own Watergate?

True. There were similar allegations in the case of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. It went on for decades. So this can take quite a while. The Economist had an issue that had the word “Thief” on top of the photograph of Berlusconi. He sued The Economist and lost the case.

Has Turkey had something of that grand scale before? And what is specific to Turkey in this story, although it is a fact of politics that absolute power corrupts, as you reminded us?

We have had many examples of corruption before. The problem that is specific to Turkey is that we have relatively important state involvement in economic decision-making. You have France acting in the same way, but in Turkey a large segment of the economy is controlled by the state and the state is instrumental in big infrastructural investments, which Turkey needs. Therefore, there is a lot of money changing hands in national and international bids in major projects. As a result, politicians and businessmen negotiate, collude and collaborate as to how those bids are distributed.

When you examine the situation, you start discovering that with governments, the companies that get those bids change. Every government has its favored construction companies that suddenly become important names. This is indicative of the fact that there have been some attempts at creating an economic base for some corporations by the actions of the state that is controlled by elected politicians. This has been continuing for a long time. The Turkish Republic tried to create a national economy and a national entrepreneurial class; I am not tempted to call it a middle class because we don’t have an aristocracy as a top class — you need to have a top and a bottom to have a middle to exist. We do not have a proletariat labor, either, and this is not venerable in Turkey. Instead you have “people” or “halk” in Turkish. At the top, you have the political masters. And you have an entrepreneurial class that could shoulder a market economy and convert Turkey to an industrial society. This was the project of the republic. That has created an interesting relationship between the state and the business community.

‘PM’s jargon of national will makes no sense’

So the business community did not develop in spite of the state or independent of the state in Turkey?

It was created by the intervention of the state, which kept the primacy of politics. So whoever controls the levers of government, tends to control the entire society and economy, which of course does not bode well with the idea of freedom, democracy, individual rights, civil society, etc. Under the current circumstances, the government is trying its best to denigrate all kinds of civil society activity as sinister. They have a very simplistic understanding of the society where you have the people and their government, nothing in between. Such a government perhaps existed in ancient city states, but not in the modern world as we know it. Since the 18th century, we have been trying to create a limited government, therefore limit the powers of government and increase the powers of the civil society.

When the AK Party government came to power, that’s what it promised, but then it changed. When did the change start?

After 2011, the prime minister’s speeches started to emphasize that he has a political mandate handed to him by the nation — this is the national will or “milli irade” in Turkish. Therefore, the government, being the national will or the embodiment of the national will, puts the opposition in an awful position. What are they an embodiment of? Are they an embodiment of local will, international will? This jargon makes no sense. The prime minister went on to argue that anything that limits his powers is a limitation of national will and therefore cannot be accepted! All these institutions of checks and balances to put limitations on the government’s power are considered as dictatorial powers invested in the bureaucracy and the judiciary.

 This is completely the opposite of what the United States or Britain has. They have limitations imposed upon the government. There is independent judicial review; they have come up with a constitutional court which is a limitation on constitutional matters on the legislature; and there has been a trend after World War II all over Europe simply because they discovered during the war period that this kind of unbridled relationship between the people and their government could be easily hijacked by popular despots, such as Mussolini, who came to power through half of the popular vote, or Hitler, who came to power after seven elections in a very short period of time with a huge majority.

And many other dictators after the war, from [Juan] Peron to [Hugo] Chavez in Latin America or elsewhere, have been elected popularly; they were very popular people. A popular election does not necessarily guarantee a democratic government; it can easily lead to a populist, authoritarian government. The only way to stop this is to establish a system of checks and balances with institutions; to establish transparency through the media; to establish the power of various interest groups. And there is a need to make sure that voters get all kinds of information from different sources.

Is the Turkish electorate able to get information from different sources to make up their minds?

No, not in Turkey, look at the declaration made by the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly, Cemil Çiçek, who is number two in power: Article 138, the article that guarantees the independence of the judiciary, is now dead. That means there is no independent judicial review over the process, and the judiciary is under increasing influence by the executive branch of the government, which is a severe violation of the constitution. Under these circumstances, the government lost much of its legitimacy. The democratic credentials and the rule of law are at risk.

‘Corruption burns first people’s wallets, then their hearts’

Where does support for the Justice and Development (AK Party) come from? What are the reasons for this popular support despite very serious corruption allegations?

Two reasons; one is ideological and the other is economic. The argument you hear most when you travel in the country is that “yes, they are corrupt, all politicians are corrupt, but they are providing us meat to eat. We can overlook corrupt practices if the economy is good.” The expectation from the politicians that they not be corrupt is not at the level that you would see in Europe and the US. The critical question is not whether or not these people are corrupt; the critical question is whether these people will share the increasing wealth with us or not. Corruption is constant; the question is: Is it going to be my thief or your thief? Look at the reasons for politicians’ resignations in the US, for example, the New York governor’s resignation. It was revealed that he did not pay for the Yankees’ games, and when this became news, there was a big uproar. Nothing of that sort happens in this country. Who thinks that a politician pays for tickets for a game out of his own pocket in Turkey? This is not even a question in Turkey.

Does that mean that corruption has no cost for politicians in Turkey?

Corruption burns people’s wallets and eventually their hearts, when the pie does not grow fast enough or shrinks. A good example was the 2009 local elections — minus 14 percent growth led to an 8 percent drop in electoral support for the AK Party, from 46 to 38 percent, about one-sixth of its vote. The argument that “we can overlook corrupt practices if the economy is good” was made before, during the Özal government’s period until the economy stopped growing. For the last two years, the economy is in a relatively slow pace — we had close to 2 percent growth last year, close to 4 percent growth this year. These are low rates; the business community tells us that we need at least 5.5 percent; the European Union tells us that we need at least 7 percent for a decade to come close to the EU average. The unemployment rate is still very high.

We were talking about reasons for the support of the ruling party, and you were saying that there are two reasons, the first one being the economy. What is the second one?

Second, there is ideology. Currently, about one-sixth of Turkish voters place themselves on the left, according to their own definition. Approximately, one-fourth or so, around 25-30 percent, is in the center; then the majority is on the right; and the AK Party is also placed by them smack in the middle of that right – a staunch, conservative right-wing position, where it is about one-third of the vote. Some of those people are like fans of sports clubs. Your sports club may not be performing well this year, but you don’t change clubs. They will also read or listen to the media that are closest to their hearts and that give them the spin the government desires.

Besides, we have a psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance — we try to avoid messages that undermine our earlier beliefs. These people will selectively perceive and only believe in the version that is given to them by the press that is close to the prime minister, who suppresses all other information as irrelevant or sinister. The other 15 percent or so are more opportunistic voters. They can easily switch their positions because they are not so ideologically close to the position of the prime minister.

‘Early elections would create several problems’

Would you expect early elections?

Early elections would create several problems. First of all, there is the three elections rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party); they have to waive that. If they change it, that will tarnish their image. The party bylaws state that a party member can only stand and be a member of Parliament three times. Unless this rule is altered, important names such as Bülent Arınç and Cemil Çiçek cannot stand as candidates. So rules might be changed for certain people for [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan to stand as a candidate. If Erdoğan goes for the early elections and becomes prime minister, his chance for running for the president will become more difficult — we know that he wants to run for the presidency. If he moves the election date, it has to take place on the same day as the local elections.

Therefore, whatever aim they have in sequence in those elections — local elections first, then presidential elections and then legislative elections — will be completely gone. Then the opposition would argue that if they go for the early elections, the government has something to hide so they cannot wait long enough. But if they don’t go for early elections, it’s a long time between now and 2015 — many more revelations and accusations of tempering with laws and undermining judicial independence are likely to come. And it came already from Cemil Çiçek, a respected high-level AK Party member and a lawyer. You cannot argue that this is also an international conspiracy!

Do the Turkish voters have tough choices ahead?

The electorate is in a very difficult bind. Now we have a critical minority that believes we have the right kind of government in place because of ideological and economic reasons, but at the same time the government is becoming highly implicated with corruption. So what do you do? The way you decide on these matters determines the quality of democracy you developed; it also determines the value of the vote. If you value your vote, then you have to be worried about the moral consequences of your vote. If you just care about some specific benefits that you get and morality does not matter, then you have to stick to that low standard of moral politics; in the long run, it will be detrimental to the economic development and economic welfare of this country. So we have an important series of elections, and people face tough choices. Good luck with that!

  Ersin Kalaycıoğlu –  A professor of political science at Sabancı University’s faculty of arts and social sciences since 2007, he was formerly the rector of Işık University in İstanbul from 2004 to 2007. Professor Kalaycıoğlu is a student of comparative politics and specializes in political representation and participation. He conducted several national surveys on Turkish electoral behavior and political participation. He has authored and co-edited several books in Turkish and English on comparative political participation. His book “Karşılaştırmalı Siyasal Sistemler” (Comparative Political Systems) with Deniz Kağnıcıoğlu was published as a textbook in Turkish. Among his other books are: “The Rising Tide of Conservatism in Turkey,” with Ali Çarkoğlu (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, May 2009); “Turkish Democracy Today: Elections, Protest and Stability in an Islamic Society,” with Ali Çarkoğlu (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007); and “Turkish Dynamics: Bridge Across Troubled Lands” (New York, USA: Palgrave-Macmillan 2005). http://www.todayszaman.com/news-336385-professor-kalaycioglu-turkey-is-having-its-own-watergate.html