"A little more light", says Kanal 7 in this cartoon.
BACKGROUND: The urbanization process in Turkey, speeding up in the 1950s and subsequent decades, contributed to ingraining corruption in the system. Indeed, urbanization largely took place through the illegal building of slum houses, the so-called Gecekondu (literally “built by night”, a reference to the fact that once standing, houses could not legally be torn down). Gradually, these illegal slums were turned into multi-story buildings by construction firms, a process that required a complex mix of bribes and kickbacks to obtain the necessary permits. This in turn lifted many people out of poverty, and allowed others to make fortunes, while making corruption systemic in local administrations.
But corruption has not been limited to local administrations. In fact, corruption has been the cause of marginalization for many political figures and entire parties. Over the years, especially center-right parties have been badly affected, partly because they have occupied longer stints in government. In the past two decades, the disintegration of the Motherland Party (ANAP) and the True Path Party (DYP) are the most visible examples. A number of high-level figures who had an impact in Turkish politics but did not take measures against corruption became victims of this process, and their parties were marginalized.
The predecessor of today’s governing AKP was the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi), which sprung out of the Milli Görüs (National Outlook) movement. The Welfare and Virtue Parties (RP and FP), both successors of the MSP, besieged the center-right parties using religious references and accusations of corruption. In contrast to the perceived corruption of the center-right, they used values like honesty, ethics and virtue, together with the slogan of “clean rule” in order to gain support from the people. Similarly, today’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan seized the post of mayor of Istanbul from his predecessor – a member of the center-left CHP – after the latter succumbed to corruption allegations in 1994. Erdogan subsequently managed to use that post for his advancement, until climbing to the pinnacle of Turkish politics. In this process, his principal slogan was clean and honest politics.
However, in its sixth year of government and having avoided closure by the constitutional court suffering only a slap on the wrist by seeing its treasury financing cut, the AKP is being confronted with increasingly abundant corruption allegations. While various rumors of the enrichment of the AKP’s leading figures in both national and local government have abounded for years, the first documented case of high-level bribery concerned AKP deputy Chairman Saban Disli. Disli appears to have signed a deal whereby he would receive US$ 1 million for turning a piece of land within Istanbul’s city limits from a green pasture area where nothing could be built into a commercial property where buildings could be erected. Allegations emerged also against the AKP Mayor of Gaziantep and the Head of the AKP’s office in Batman Province. In Gaziantep, similar to the Disli case, the allegation is that the AKP and businessmen close to it benefited from the Mayor’s decision to turn a property into a commercial entity.
More seriously, a German court case concerning embezzlement in a German-Turkish charity organization with close ties to the AKP, Deniz Feneri(Lighthouse) implicated the names of Prime Minister Erdogan peripherally, but much more directly persons close to him: the Chairman of the Radio and Television High Commission (RTÜK) Zahit Akman, and the CEO of the pro-AKP television channel Kanal 7, Zekeriya Kahraman. Three leading executives of Deniz Feneri, which shares the same building with Kanal 7’s German offices,were convicted by a Frankfurt court in September for embezzling 16 million of the ca. 41 million Euros that Deniz Feneri had collected among believers living in Germany over the past several years, for humanitarian purposes including aid to Tsunami victims in Southeast Asia. German prosecutors have argued – and the suspects confessed – that a substantial amount of this money was channeled to the pro-government Kanal 7 television station, among other through suitcases of cash brought from Germany. Aside from that, large salaries were provided to leading figures such as Akman through shell companies, while allegations of even more substantial cash transfers are included in the case – with Akman appearing to have served both as a courier and beneficiary. Yet millions remain completely unaccounted for, causing speculation that the money has funded the AKP and/or enriched its leaders. German prosecutor Kerstin Lötz stated at the conclusion of the court case that the masterminds of the plot are in Turkey, pointing specifically to Kahraman, a co-founder of Deniz Feneri and CEO of Kanal 7.
When these allegations were widely disseminated in the media, mainly in those owned by the Dogan Group, the AKP leadership at first took a defensive position and denied all allegations of wrongdoing. However, facing growing public pressure, Mr. Disli resigned from his post in the party following a 1 September party meeting. The AKP reacted most aggressively to the Deniz Feneriscandal, in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s name was indirectly implicated and persons close to him directly accused of wrongdoing. At first, Erdogan and his associates termed the affair an invention by its enemies in the press. Erdogan argued that there was a systematic defamation campaign against him. Not staying at generalities, Erdogan singled out the country’s largest media boss, Aydin Dogan. Erdogan accused Dogan of engaging in blackmail and claimed that the defamation campaign was created because Dogan had failed to receive licenses for alterations of his Hilton Hotel in the center of Istanbul, and because some of Dogan’s demands concerning the CNN Turk television channel had been rejected. Only when the German court reached its verdict did Erdogan begin to backpedal, promising an investigation. As of this writing, though, Akman had not yet resigned despite strong urgings to do so. More damaging for Erdogan was his adamant insistence that he did not know Mehmet Gürhan, the chief convict in the German court – until photographs of the two men together were revealed.
IMPLICATIONS: From the 1980s onward, heads of media groups established closer connections with government as they branched out into new business areas. Hence the magnates started to use their media power to improve their situation in other areas, by playing the card of their media outlets’ attitude to the state. This card was played by alternately expressing criticism and admiration toward the government.
This relationship between media and government was quite effective in keeping a lid on corruption allegations during the first term of the AKP – indeed, few allegations leaked into the pages of newspapers. But as the political climate heated up this year and the government’s attempts to secure control over the media expanded, (see Turkey Analyst June 4 issue) media outlets not under the AKP’s control began to report on the various corruption allegations against the ruling party.
A main element that contributed to this development has been the worldview of the AKP leadership, which increasingly overtly divides bureaucracy, elites, and writers into categories. Some intellectuals and businesses are seen as being “with us”, while others are not, with ever sharper lines between them. Coupled with this is Erdogan’s growing ambition to seize or neutralize dissident voices. Indeed, the aim seems to be to achieve obedience. Up to now, the Dogan Group’s behavior could be identified as more or less neutral. In keeping with the traditions of Turkish media, it remained within the limits of moderate opposition. But Erdogan’s strategies toward the media – including harsher rhetoric and the takeover of media holdings (See Turkey Analyst June 4 issue) prompted those “who are not with them” to step up their independence. In particular, the fate of non-obedient media outlets that were taken over by the government like Sabah, ATV, Star, and Kanal Türk explain the recent evolution of the Dogan Group’s behavior: raising the stakes in order to maintain its independence and survival, and indicating the very real damage that the AKP can be exposed to unless it back off the media.
The bribery scandal involving Saban Disli was a small and relatively trivial case – a direct solicitation for money. By contrast, the Deniz Feneri scandal provides a rare insight into the type of complex financial flows that observers have long argued played a key role in propping up Turkey’s Islamist movement, as well as its closely associated media outlets. Indeed, it has been known for decades that the inner circle of the Islamic movement have institutionalized a financial wheel based on foundations and associations, often based on contributions and investments sent from Turks living in Europe.
Indeed, the movement took root and grew partly with the help of charity funds flowing from Europe. Many of the donors may not disapprove of the political appropriations of the money; for them, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that as long as the funds are used for the strengthening of political Islam. Indeed, as long as the sponsors remain convinced that the leaders are using the money for the cause rather than for personal gain, the AKP leadership’s legitimacy may not be endangered within its own ranks, where there is understanding for the need for shady transactions to evade state oversight.
In reality, of course, these informal financial transfer mechanisms provide immense avenues for collective corruption, to which the AKP leadership is not any more immune than other political forces. There is a growing suspicion that as the AKP’s leadership’s power has grown, the informal financial transfers taking place in the name of Islamic solidarity have come to be used at least partly for the enrichment of individual politicians.
Significantly, the allegations have struck a nerve even in the pro-Islamic press, where doubt over the honesty of the leaders appears to have begun to develop. This is more or less unprecedented in the Islamic movement, and may be the most significant implication of the recent scandals.
CONCLUSIONS: The struggle in Turkish politics, until recently centering on the issue of secularism, is now continuing over corruption. While this struggle is bound to affect the position of the AKP, it is unlikely to topple the government in the short run. Because the core AKP voters see politics as a means to an end, they have in the past accepted that gathering money through various channels is legitimate. And with the recent past in mind, many voters are bound to think that their current leaders may perhaps be corrupt, but that they at least govern the country well – and that by contrast, the alternatives may be equally corrupt but inept at governing. That said, should economic indicators worsen, corruption allegations may pave the way for the downfall of the AKP. Should the AKP leadership lose the moral high ground both in society at large, but even more importantly among its political base, the party’s position may erode faster than expected.