A Corruption Scandal in Turkey: Tamer Söyler

Guest post by TAMER SӦYLER 

A corruption Scandal in Turkey first broke on December, 17th last year. Under instructions by the public prosecutor Celal Kara, the financial police took into custody several suspects comprising famous businessmen (Ali Agaoğlu and Reza Zarrab), family members of three ministers from the cabinet (sons of ministers Muammer Güler, Zafer Çaglayan and Erdoğan Bayraktar) and high level bureaucrats. Main suspects were immediately arrested by the court.
Prime Minister Erdoğan declared that this was a fabricated investigation to humiliate his government on the eve of coming elections. The Prime Minister accused Fethullah Gülen, the founder of the Gülen Movement, living in a self-imposed exile in the US for the last 15 years, for placing a plot to overthrow his government.

The response of the government was direct and hard. Erdoğan ordered a massive reshuffling of prosecutors and Police personnel who were either involved in the investigation or were suspected of being affiliated with the Gülen Movement, all assigned to different posts throughout the country. A politically charged reshuffling of bureaucracy was interpreted by the public as a move of a more and more illegitimate looking government to obscure justice. Erdoğan announced that his government would undertake any kinds of precautions to fight the campaign against their rule.
Erdoğan’s paranoia has hit an all-time high when he accused the social media platform Twitter during a recent campaign rally working against his government. “We will eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says” promised Erdoğan. As of now, Twitter is blocked in Turkey.
Against this background, this commentary aims to shed some light on the corruption scandal by simply laying out the immediate responses from the mainstream media in Turkey. The clippings from the mainstream papers illustrate how dissent is trivialized even in today’s socio-political circumstances. Followed by this section a number of cartoons from the comic magazines of Turkey are presented. From the very first day of AKP (The Justice and Development Party) government’s formation, comic magazines have given voice to the dissent. An open question is posed: How can we go beyond supporter and opponent cynicism?
Prime Ministerial Infallibility
A wiretap allegedly featuring phone conversations between Erdoğan and his son Bilal was leaked on February 24, 2014. As of now the authenticity of the tapes are not verified. For this reason, the evidence at hand must be treated as allegations. In the leaked conversations, Erdoğan and his son are discussing how to hide large sums of money which they were keeping in their home in Istanbul. The conversation took place on December 17, 2013 (English transcripts). This is the day police raided government officials as part of a corruption investigation.
The Prime Minister responded to the allegations with rage. Erdoğan is known for his temper. According to his opponents, it is important to understand from where his rage comes. It is related to his overall arrogance they claim. The idea follows that his arrogance is fueled by his devotion to authoritarian thinking.
Prime Ministerial Infallibility, as one might like to call it, is a dogma that Erdoğan grew into. Opposition leaders argue that the Prime Minister preserves himself from the possibility of error. He considers himself as the shepherd. Holding a supreme authority Erdoğan takes it for granted that he can define and redefine issues concerning faith and morals. “Reis” [A nickname given to Erdoğan by his supporters roughly meaning “captain”] works for the cause. On these grounds he can be excused for his sins.
From the point of Erdoğan’s opponents, all of this reveals one basic fact: The Prime Minister is desperately deluded. He underestimates the intelligence of his opponents. He assumes that by threatening every single person who challenges him, he can maintain an absolute control over Turkish citizenry. For years Erdoğan has successfully palliated the widespread discontent. Today he might have reached a threshold. The allegations are very serious. The corruption scandal is just too big. Even the mainstream media is turning against Erdoğan.

corruption turkey1
Image1 phone conversation

Erdoğan has always been drawn by the cartoonists as an authoritarian figure with an envy of an Ottoman Sultan. But the Prime Minister is now also being mocked as a greedy hypocrite who preaches about morality on the one hand and making a family fortune on the other. The cartoon on the right mocks the phone call between the Prime Minister and his son Bilal Erdoğan. In the leaked recording Bilal Erdoğan appears quite slow with his responses. The cartoonist is underlining the pressing ineptitude of the conversation partners. Both know that their phones are wiretapped, yet they cannot help talking and revealing secrets. As if this was not carelessness enough, Bilal Erdoğan persistently demands more clarification and instructions from his father. The cartoon on the right summarizes the overall public opinion. The Prime Minister is talking to his hologram saying: “It is only you left who still believes in me.” Erdoğan is not far from a point of no return.
Media is now picking on the corruption scandal. The pro-government papers are denying the authenticity of the tapes.

As the mainstream media supported the rise of Erdoğan and his party, the latest developments are surprising for many. When Erdoğan established himself and his party gained full control of the state apparatus, the media was put under immense pressure. The pragmatic media executives quickly decided that they could not help but comply with the government. If the wiretap was not leaked, one could argue that the pragmatic media consensus was likely to persist.
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Both cartoons are from a popular comic magazine Gırgır. The cartoon on the left is mocking a recent incident. During a foreign trip to North Africa Erdoğan gave a call to a media executive (Fatih Saraç). He asked the executive to alter the news (about the minor opposition leader Devlet Bahçeli) in the respective TV Channel (Haber Türk). The caption reads: “Hello Fatih! Today’s paper was good. Good job! Print today’s paper tomorrow again. One more thing: Your auntie says that you should not use glossy paper. Your paper is no good when wiping the windows. Carry on!” The second cartoon is about the same incident. Erdoğan is trying to call Fatih Saraç. But Mehmed the Conqueror (1432 – 1481) picks up the phone: “Hello Fatih! Shut this awful thing off!” cries Erdoğan thinking that he is talking to Fatih Saraç, the media executive. “Wrong number honey!” answers Mehmed the Conqueror. And he sighs: “And they call me a monarch!” meaning that Erdoğan’s democratic republic is more monarchic than the Ottoman Empire.
Mainstream media is now aware that the political configuration has been unalterably transformed. A new configuration will pave the way for new developments. Citizenry in Turkey would like to interpret this transformation as a positive sign. They assume things will gradually get better. This might not be necessarily the case. There are good enough reasons to believe that the discussion in Turkey is misguided.
The media is preoccupied with the authenticity of the wiretaps. To be part of a meaningful discussion the discussants are now expected to be familiarized with sound engineering. This is nothing but putting the emphasis on a pseudo subject and throwing the discussion off the scent. It is important to understand that the authenticity of the recordings has trivial importance. Can such a ridiculous conversation take place between the head of the government in Turkey and his Harvard graduate son? This is indeed an interesting question and a great topic for entertainment. But this cannot be the focus of a serious discussion. There are more important issues to discuss.

The Wire
As entertaining as the nature of the alleged conversation may be, one must acknowledge that the recording itself is irrelevant. Erdoğan is right. It is simply a tool utilized in a manipulative media operation for managing public perception. There seems to be no way to prove the authenticity of the leaked recording. It is destined, in the end, to be merely a matter about beliefs.

The government officials continue to deny that the alleged conversations took place. The supporters of Erdoğan regard any evidence against their leader as a shameless assault. Their devotion is so strong that they would not be convinced even if Erdoğan was caught red-handed. A columnist with an Islamist background already wrote that even if the Prime Minister had really large sums of cash in his private residence, this alone would not prove anything. After all this could be the donations from the supporters. And Erdoğan is of course entitled to use this money for “the cause”.

As far as the opposition is concerned, there is no need to prove the existence of corruption. It is self-evident, they claim, for non-partisan eyes. According to this argument, the AKP government has been ruling over a decade now. It is only logical to arrive at a conclusion that the power the party officials had accumulated in the course of time translated into financial gains. In consequence, from the perspective of Erdoğan’s opponents, one does not need leaked wiretaps to prove sociological facts. The only reason the opposition continues to talk about the content of the wiretaps is because they know that there is no other way to convince devoted supporters of Erdoğan. The corruption scandal is used to sway public opinion.

Put the entertaining part of the scandal aside, the two-fold real problem will be evident: First, the Turkish government is corrupted. As much as the opposition would like to think that this is a local evil, it is not. Corruption is a global problem. To that end, it has to be of systemic in nature. It is not a singularity of Turkey. It is a particularity of the capitalist world economy. The opposition parties are as much prone to corruption as the ruling party. Second, the Prime Minister of Turkey—a totalitarian one or not—is wiretapped. So the citizenry have every right to question whether they are living in a serious political regime. All of these point at a systemic crisis. If this is really a working democracy, asks the self-reflective citizens, should one then not question the dominant conservative consensus?

When the aforementioned aspects of the current crisis are placed under scrutiny, a couple of conclusions come forward: There is certainly a demise of morality within the Turkish socio-political system. The problem is a systemic one. Both parties of the conflict—Erdoğan’s supporters and opponents—have contributed to the disappearance of morality. Both parties are holding illegitimate standpoints and claim self-righteousness. The conservative consensus has collapsed. The configuration is irreversibly altered. All players in the system are now trying to reposition themselves. The power struggle will not cease.

Drawing Dissent
It has been already a long time that the Prime Minister of Turkey has declared a dogma of Prime Ministerial Infallibility. Under an authoritarian regime Erdoğan pretended that this self-proclaimed dogma was consensually validated. The freedom of press rhetoric was never convincing in the context of Turkey. But under AKP government, the mainstream media was rendered to a pure joke. As a result, Erdoğan’s self-confidence has skyrocketed. It could take only a huge corruption scandal for the mainstream media to shift their position.
For those who have been resisting the AKP government from the very beginning, such opportunist dissent cannot be taken serious. During the Gezi upheaval last year, the very same press was muted for weeks. Opponents of Erdoğan who proved their worth for the last decade rightfully question: An emancipatory event such as the Gezi upheaval did not convince the mainstream media to take sides with the protestors. A scandalous event such as the current corruption scandal, on the other hand, is enough to convince the media to take a different stance. One can easily push the idea into a conclusion. The mainstream media cannot be taken seriously. This is why one has to look elsewhere for seeing persistent and consistent threads of dissent.
From the day that Prime Minister Erdoğan took office, cartoonists have never been shy on challenging the Prime Minister’s authoritarian style. While most of the newspaper editors gradually reached a point of self-censorship, comic magazines have never stepped back from criticizing Erdoğan. A 22 year old university student from İstanbul, Ebru, reading a popular comic magazine, Penguen, on the boat crossing from Üsküdar to Beşiktaş, summarizes the reason why millions of people in Turkey follow comic magazines on a weekly basis: “I do not watch the news or read the papers. It is very depressing” the young woman states. “But comic magazines like Penguen are just great. Here you get the essence of the news in a much faster and humorous way. Besides, why should I get depressed because of lousy politicians? I’d rather mock these shameless hypocrites. And these magazines surely help.”
This alone should suffice to understand why Erdoğan systematically targeted the cartoonists. The Prime Minister understands how strong strands of dissent can come into being through the sharp humor of comic magazines. One must bear in mind that one of the key aspects of authoritarianism is a strong sense of self-pretentiousness. A fundamental part of being a King is about the attitude: The King must take his Kinghood serious. In other words, a King must genuinely believe that he has the God-given right to rule over his subjects. The cartoonists like to problematize this type of self-pretentious attitude. While the Prime Minister parades before his subjects in the dress that he thinks that fits him the best—a never comprising strong leader figure—the cartoonists have long been crying out: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all! He is not legitimate!” Now that the King is ridiculed, he can also be metaphorically beheaded.
Thanks to the seemingly endless scandals in the scene of Turkish Politics, cartoonists are guaranteed to have much more material than they actually need. Some examples of the brilliant cartoons from the dissenting comic magazines in Turkey have been presented above.

The Banality of Evil
The writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. The phrase has since become an intellectual cliché. Just like Arendt one must ask what kind of historical subject had become possible within the current order of things. Politicians such as Erdoğan are corrupted in a very banal way. If corruption is discussed on its own, it only means that the discussants are not thinking well enough. The Turkish citizenry seems to fail understanding Erdoğan and his deeds. The opponents of the Prime Minister are trying to consider him as a pathological individual— a mythomaniac or a kleptomaniac. This is an exercise in futility. A systemic critique must be made.

A systemic critique requires a theoretical effort. Nevertheless, a systemic perspective is never free of the risk of translating into cynicism. One can already register two types of cynicism in Turkey: the cynicism of the citizenry and critical cynicism.

The former has become common currency. People of Turkey more and more give the impression that they will not take the news on corruption seriously. Or, they will take it seriously only when it is presented as part of a bigger plot. People are Turkey are, after all, devoted TV viewers of popular soap operas. Unless a historic event is dramatized in the form of a soap opera the citizenry will not maintain their focus. The plot here is the political power struggle between Erdoğan and Gülen. May it be a fabricated or a genuine incident of corruption, the scandal is used by his opponents to eliminate Erdoğan.

AKP supporters join in this wave of cynicism: “Yes, they may be corrupted.” says Ahmet 55 years old from Istanbul. “But you see, they are at least working.” One can clearly state that despite the rhetoric of morality, corruption has become commonsensical in Turkey. The cynicism of the citizenry can be best summarized with a well-known adage in Turkish: He who has something to do with a big deal will always draw some profit. Are they not all thieves?

The second type of cynicism is a critical one and it is well known to oppositional milieus: Corruption is a natural outcome of the capitalist order of things. In other words, people are expected to be corrupted in this system. This is the game and players are required to play the game according to the rules. Thus, there is nothing to be surprised about. On the contrary, Erdoğan proved to be consistent throughout his rule. He is a typical right-wing populist leader.

The dilemma here is the following: A critical mind finds it very difficult to criticize corruption without risking affirming the current order of things. In other words, a critique of corruption would imply that if a reformed version of capitalism was possible—without corruption and with some sense of social responsibility—it could be acceptable. Therefore, an anti-systemic critique condemns itself to a paradox: It necessitates accepting corruption as a self-evidentalized phenomenon of the prevailing capitalist order. And such a critique denies its own principles of critique. One must not forget that if the world has become a somewhat better place, this has become possible as a result of difficult emancipatory struggles. Cynicism has never contributed in this progress.

Many questions abound: If the real middle class discourse of morality and the conservative consensus that comes along with it are not convincing, how else one can approach the current corruption scandal in Turkey? Answers to this question will be highly contentious. But it is probably worth remarking a solution.

Looking at the global protests that have been taking place all over the globe for the last three years, one witnesses the emergence of a global precarious working class which veils itself as a pseudo middle class. Precarious middle class showed its face during Brazilian and Turkish Protests in the year 2013.* With a system-friendly attitude, the mainstream media rushed to categorize them as part of the middle class. One must accept, this is why debates of corruption took up residence in minds and paved the way for hegemony excelling at trivializing dissent. This perspective must be challenged.

The consciousness of the precarious working class is closer to the proletariat. It is in proximity with the underclasses. Their social situatedness make them sharp and aware. They are the ones who will deconstruct the conservative consensus and whatever comes along with it. The emergence of precarious working class is a step for the betterment of the social system in the Global South.

The current scandal has provided an opportunity. The formerly underclasses of Turkey are now empowered to a good extent. They are provided with the resources. They are now in a socio-structural position to question their commitment to the popular right wing parties. They can resist against oppression. This could be the way for emancipation. And there are good enough reasons for being optimistic. Real change can occur. Why not?


*For a better understanding of the demarcation between the real middle class and the precarious middle class in the case of 2013 Brazilian Protests, please see my interview with Jésse Souza from Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora-Brazil which will be published in the next issue of Transcience-A Journal of Global Studies.

Tamer Söyler is a PhD candidate and a guest lecturer at the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. He was born in Turkey and lived most of his life in Istanbul. He studied at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for a semester and has often visited India.



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