Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Prime Minister's Biggest Failure

           While massive corruption and blatant witch hunts are bad enough, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s real failure has been to waste his unprecedented opportunity to transform the government.  Instead of improving to modern European standards the already weak state institutions have been eviscerated and all but destroyed under his leadership.

            He has often moaned about institutions countering his own and, in his own distorted fantasies, the country’s will. The press, the judiciary, the Central Bank, the Foreign Ministry have all at one time or other withered under his total scorn. The Central Bank and Foreign Ministry, in particular, used to be two of the country’s proudest institutions.

            Generations of bright young people would work hard to join them. They sincerely believed they were proudly serving their country, not just some petty politician who happened to be prime minister for the time being. Many, many times over the years people in several different countries would go out of their way to tell me how effective, how professional Turkish diplomats were. Friends in the Greek foreign ministry would often tell me how jealous they were of their Turkish counterparts.

Years ago, before Erdoğan and company, the Turkish ambassador to the UK said he would like to host a formal dinner for members of the financial community in Turkey’s handsome London embassy. He asked me to help arrange it and then ordered representatives of the Central Bank and Treasury to be present to answer any questions. And, by the way, he said this would be a black tie event. When he mentioned who he would like to attend I remarked that some of those people were not exactly friends of Turkey.

“All the more reason to invite them. Perhaps we both might learn something,” he said.

Forget simple doner kebab, the menu was the highest quality Turkish/Ottoman cuisine served on elegant plates decorated with a discrete star and crescent design. The Turkish wines were superb. The only slightly jarring note was when I was sharply scolded for not bringing my wife-to-be. A quick phone call fixed that.

The conversation was lively and new lines of informal communication were established between several key members of London’s financial community and Turkish financial officials.

Sadly, all that professionalism is fast disappearing. Ambassadors are now told to push the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) line that the recent corruption scandals are nothing more than an attempted ‘coup’ and that the prime minister’s moves to intimidate the judiciary are necessary for ‘democracy’. Instead of coming up through the rigorous ministry system ambassadors can now be selected from the ranks of party hacks. In short, the Foreign Ministry is being asked to serve the narrow interests of one prime minister rather than the country at large.

            The Central Bank is similar. Some of the smartest people I know in Turkey have worked there for far less money than they could have received in the private sector. My daughter worked there one summer, and told me repeatedly how impressed she was by all the people around her. When she asked them about political pressure she said they would just laugh and tell her they had a much more important mission than serving any politician.

            The governor of the Central Bank and the head of the Treasury are intelligent people. They know exactly what has to be done to stop the dramatic decline of the Turkish currency that has lost more than 10% in less than two months. They know perfectly well that interest rates must increase. But their hands are tied by the prime minister who hates interest rates of any kind, especially those that pose a threat to his cronies in the construction business. Therefore, the two bureaucrats are forced to spend Turkey’s rapidly shrinking reserves in a vain attempt to protect the value of the currency.

            Key ministries and bodies like the Privatisation Administration have also suffered under AKP rule. For years it was a rule that any sale of state property had to have at least two bids. I remember well one transaction where we had to scramble to find other bidders for a project we were interested in. Under Erdoğan, that inconvenient rule has simply been bypassed for large projects like the first nuclear power plant that failed to attract enough bidders.

            The press has been thoroughly emasculated and all of the county’s other watchdogs have been left toothless. The judiciary has been the one potential source of independence. And now Erdoğan wants to bring that institution firmly under party control. Fortunately President Abdullah Gül has signalled his support for an independent judiciary and hinted broadly that he might veto the bill being rammed through parliament.

            The prime minister is trying to run the entire country like one of the many clans found in much of Turkey. Each of those clans has a leader, an ağa or a reis, who has total control of the life of the clan – literally from cradle to grave. Clan members accept that the ağa knows best.

            In truly modern states institutions have replaced much of this older, arbitrary personal rule. For better or worse decisions are made by committees. This may slow things down, but at least it gives individuals some protection from political vendettas. Unfortunately, whatever protection the state institutions provided citizens of Turkey is being rapidly eroded. They deserve better.

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