Does corruption decrease as the economy grows?

Does corruption decrease as the economy grows?

The first wave of the graft investigation erupted on Dec. 17, 2013. It was a Tuesday. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, besides making some general statements during the week, saved his comprehensive response to the prosecutor’s move until his Black Sea trip over the weekend.

His first important proclamation came when he spoke to the crowd when he landed Saturday (Dec. 22) in the Black Sea town of Samsun’s Çarşamba Airport. He addressed the crowd as “My brothers and sisters,” saying, “when we took office 11 years ago, Turkey’s national income was $239 billion. Now, it is over $800 billion.”

Then he asked, “In a country that has corruption, would you be able to take the Samsun-Sarp coastal highway from 35 percent complete and finish it in one term?”

Thus, we have met for the first time the thesis of Erdoğan: The government’s services should be accepted as proof that there is no corruption in Turkey.

The PM repeated this thesis in the other places he visited on that day. For example, in his next stop at Ordu’s Ünye district, he told the crowd that 6,000 kilometers of roads were built in 11 years. “Can a corrupted government do this?” he asked.

This theme became a trademark of Erdoğan’s speeches after Dec. 17. According to my calculations, the PM has resorted to this theme in 14 different public speeches since then. The subject sometimes becomes the number of classrooms, or the number of hospitals, or sometimes the Marmaray rail.

However, the same question comes up at the end of the paragraph: “Could these have happened if there was corruption?”

Prime Minister Erdoğan frequently resorts to this thesis to stand against the claims in the corruption files.

No doubt, it is an argument that might persuade some of the men on the street. Indeed, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has had an impressive performance during its 11-year rule in the physical infrastructure of the country.

However, we are entering controversial waters, to the point where the government’s performance is used as a counter-proof to rebut corruption claims. Erdoğan’s suggestion is based on this simple logic: “As I have done these concrete services, this means I have used the taxpayers’ money correctly and returned it to society.”

Of course, the PM is using a very classic propaganda technique here. When you repeat a view tirelessly and persistently, it is quite possible to put these ideas as a reality in the minds of – not everyone – but at least some segments, after a certain point.

However, we can come up with counter views against the PM’s thesis. In the final analysis, his suggestion is an assumption based on the fact that budget resources are transformed into concrete investments. But the fact that favorable services are brought to the public is never a positive proof alone that corruption does not exist in that country.

The strongest criterion on performance in this respect is to maintain the administrative, legal and supervisory framework/capacity strong enough to prevent corruption in the country.

When viewed from this aspect, in an environment where the functions of the Court of Accounts, and other auditing councils have regressed, where the powers of the Public Procurement Agency are constantly eroded, and more importantly, where open interventions are able to be conducted against the judiciary, it is not possible to mention this kind of assurance.

It must be because of this that Turkey has become 53rd among 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2013; in other words, it is in the “semi-clean” category. The very clean ones are in the 90-100 range.

Besides, we are talking about a process that has been submitted to the court. While the prosecutor is preparing his indictment, while the judge is ruling his decision, they will not look into the rise in Turkey’s national income and the developments in the infrastructure; they will look into the material evidence in the file.

No doubt, presumption of innocence is essential, but the shoe boxes and dollars in suitcases will always be in our minds.

Sedat Ergin is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which this abridged piece was published on Jan 24. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.