Turkey’s corruption cases cast shadow on elections

Ceylan Ozbudak

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Turkish soap operas are said to be a “soft power” for Turkey in the Muslim world and among Muslim communities in the West. To be frank, the last time I watched a soap opera was in 2004. I grew to dislike the unnaturally complicated reflections of human relationships in society that is so typical of the genre, but of course, such is the nature of soap operas the world over. Who knew the Turkish political scene today would easily exceed the highest-rated soap operas in terms of complexity?

This Tuesday, Turkish people woke up to the news of an alleged corruption and bribery scandal including early morning raids on the houses and detention of several high-profile businessmen including the sons of three key cabinet ministers, the probe into a Turkish state bank over Iranian deposits related to the energy trade, and the detention of the allegedly gold-smuggling Iranian husband of a Turkish diva. This was followed by the removal of police chiefs from their posts, including Istanbul's Police Chief. While Foreign Minister Davutoğlu was discussing Syria with Iran’s Zarif in the D-8 meeting, and Israeli planes resumed flights to Turkey after five long years, several journalists were being dismissed from their positions in various newspapers. I know, I know; even I felt dizzy reading this.

In the beginning, not only the media but the rest of the cabinet was shell-shocked. Even for our Western audience, who awaited news of probation for Halk Bank over a gas versus gold barter, this came as a shock.

Let’s see what the highly debated Iran/Halk Bank/Gold triangle is.

The USA and the EU started trade sanctions against Iran in 2010, which were later followed by a blockade and restrictions on financial transactions and transfers of Iran. As of March 2012, it was impossible to transfer to or from Iran through the SWIFT international foreign exchange transfer system . In other words, Iran was no longer able to collect payments or make any payments.

However, there was an exception for countries like Turkey, which have been buying natural gas and raw oil products from Iran. Yet, because of the ban on international money transfers, these countries were able to import energy but not able to pay for it.

Nevertheless, Turkey found a way to get around that restriction by opening an account for Iran with Halk Bank where it kept the money in escrown for the energy it has been buying from Iran. After a while, Iran started converting the amounts in that account to gold and began to transfer them to Iran. Thus, we started paying our energy purchases through gold. Not pleased with this development, the USA moved to stop it and thus imposed a new ban on any gold imports to Iran by the beginning of July 2013. This effectively stopped our gold exports to Iran, even though it was our indirect form of payment. It recently became clear that gold was imported using the amount in the account and that the majority of the 13 billion Dollars worth of gold was still in Turkey. 2010 was a year when Turkey’s gold imports were normal, and in 2011 Iran imported gold to Turkey and in 2012 Turkey moved the gold to Iran; it also became evident that during this time, Iran has been using its gold accounts in the United Arab Emirates as well. To sum up, 8 billion Dollars worth of gold had been sent to Iran in the past three years, yet a similar amount still seems to be in Turkey waiting to be sent.

What do these operations mean for Turkey?

This simply means that Turkey has a well-functioning control mechanism, which doesn’t exclude the people of power or those within their families. If a minister’s son can be taken into custody in the middle of the night without asking for permission to do so, it means democracy is in place and functioning well. This event shows that Turkey, contrary to popular belief, is not ruled by a dictator and his tribe of favored people. This simply means that no one in Turkey is immune to Turkish laws , and neither are the members of the AK Party. It also means that jurisdiction is not under the control of the government in Turkey.

So how will this affect the AK Party and the upcoming elections?

If a minister’s son can be taken into custody in the middle of the night without asking for permission to do so, it means democracy is in place and functioning well.

Ceylan Ozbudak

In almost every government we have witnessed people using the power of state for corruption. In every country, you will see those who try to achieve success and riches via a short-cut. On Oct. 8, 2013, Romania's deputy Prime Minister, Liviu Dragnea, was charged with electoral fraud and Economics Minister Varujan Vosganian resigned over a disputed natural gas deal in a series of high-level corruption cases. On June 13, 2013, some of the closest advisors and collaborators of the Czech Prime Minister, including Jana Nagyová, Managing Director of the Section of the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic's Cabinet, and Lubomír Poul, Director of the Office of the Government, were arrested in association with a wide-ranging corruption scandal. In the British Conservative Party, on October 14th 2011, Secretary of State for Defense Liam Fox resigned from the Cabinet after he "mistakenly allowed the distinction between his personal interests and government activities to become blurred" over his friendship with Adam Werrity. In April of 2012, Conservative Party MP for Great Britain and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt came under pressure to resign as a result of his closeness to Rupert Murdoch's global media empire and alleged corruption in dealing with Murdoch's bid for News Corporation's takeover of BSkyB. The 2010 cash for influence scandal is one of the biggest political scandals in the United Kingdom. Therefore, it does not come as a total surprise to onlookers.

This, however, doesn’t mean the end of the center right governing in Turkey. Those who are enthusiastically awaiting the left to take over in Turkey because of a situation of continuous crisis are at fault. The last time the Turkish left was in parliament without a right wing coalition partner was in 1946 and since then the Turkish left has never found their Tony Blair. I will explain this in more detail next week but in summary, for the main opposition CHP to collect the votes from the majority of Turkish people, they need a center-right minded, charming revolutionary like Blair was to British Labor. Therefore, it is safe to say that for the upcoming elections, Turkey belongs to the center right.

Votes are for the collective personality of the party

Until now, the AK Party represented the center right, which led to its electoral success during the last three terms. Like I've written many times before, it was not the genius of one man, it was not the brilliant marks regarding the economy despite a global economical crisis, it was the ideology and the character the AK Party represented: Not the AK Party itself or its members, but as a collective personality, the Turkish center right transformed itself to represent a highly tolerant and approachable type of Islamic society after 1997. The 28th February 1997 military memorandum forced many right wing political figures, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to shift to the center right from a much more fundamentalist right wing approach. This shift brought with it a far more modern outlook to the daily political agenda, economy and foreign policy issues. Shifting the Turkish right to the center right, the AK Party was founded to represent a more pluralistic, inclusive but conservative outlook, a perfect fit for the majority of the Turkish society. It was the collective personality, created by this movement, not the AK Party itself, that drove the electoral success.

At the end of a decade, when Turkish people look back, they see a much more prosperous, economically transformed and socially engineered Turkey than the pre-AK Party period. Just as Margaret Thatcher came to power during a tumultuous decade in British affairs, Erdoğan came to power at a very complex time and in a difficult political environment for Turkey. While pre-Thatcher London can be remembered for its industrial strikes, piled up garbage on the streets and the unburied dead, pre-Erdoğan Istanbul (as a Mayor) can also be remembered as a weary, dirty and grey place along with constant power and infrastructure failures . Just as how Thatcher restored the economy and gave ordinary people a stake in the British economy, Erdoğan’s AK Party has also restored the exhausted Turkish economy and created thousands of small businesses, while opening up Turkish industries to emerging markets in the region and the world. And just as how Thatcher shifted the entire British political scene to center right, Erdoğan stabilized the center-right agenda for the Turkish public.

Therefore, it's not too difficult to see that the Turkish center-right will likely do well in the upcoming elections, largely owing to the conservative ideology set up by the civil society organizations and the absence of a charismatic and dynamic figure or any sort of ‘functioning’ ideology on the disunited center left. Over time this can change but for the time being, the political situation in regard to center right governance looks to be largely maintenance of the status-quo.

Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.