Pandora’s Box and Politicization of Corruption

Assoc. Prof. Işık University, International Relations Department

The politicization of corruption is spreading as voters seek an improvement in their economic situation more than seeing an end to corruption. The photo shows a rally in Ankara.

The attention Pandora Papers received since early October demonstrates the rising international sensibility towards corruption. Biden’s speech at the NATO summit in June where he called member states to act against corruption, thereby moving the issue from the realm of law to the realm of politics and international security, had also marked the beginning of a new period in this regard.
The fact that we have been reading more news about corruption, the issue becomes more determinant in politicians’ coming to power (such as the electoral victory of President Caputova in Slovakia). Or losing power (such as the resignation of Austrian Chancellor Kurz) indicates the same change.
The newly released Turkish Youth Foundation (TÜGVA) papers in Turkey also not only demonstrate the extent of nepotism and waste of public resources but also the rising public interest in corruption. Certainly, corruption was always important news but its increasing politicization is relatively new.

Corruption and populism

When we consider how we got to this point, we have to admit that corruption was first politicized successfully by populists who are widely criticized today.
In Ecuador, Rafael Correa was promising to whip the corrupt elites like a Correa (belt). Donald Trump would drain the swamp of corruption, and Tayyip Erdoğan would start a war against it. Populists owed their success to their ability to connect corruption to poverty and inequality.
However, when we look at the discourse of the populists and the policies they pursued when they came to power we see that what they really fought against was not corruption itself but the corrupt elites. In the case of Turkey, the December 17-25, 2013 Corruption claims which erupted 10 years after the AKP came to power highlighted this dilemma.
The main reason why corruption actually deepened under populist governments is their attempts to lift judicial checks on them in the name of the representation of general will. Correa would say, “Of course I am meddling in the judiciary, but my hands are clean!” (). Erdoğan would not deny his ambition to bring the judiciary under executive control after a series of interventions but rather say that finally “judicial institutions and members of the judiciary were looking at the same direction with the nation and the people”

Politicization of corruption

This time, it was the mainstream parties’ turn to the politicization of corruption. Yet, it was not an easy task. The anti-corruption discourse was dominated by anti-establishment and anti-elitism.
Thus, mainstream parties who had a reputation as elitists could not successfully use corruption in their own political campaigns.
Further, rather than seeing corruption come to an end, voters’ main priority was seeing an improvement in their own economic situation. After all, corruption was a systemic problem that preexisted the incumbents, and it was not realistic to expect a quick change.
The opposition’s successful politicization of corruption finally came with the gradual decline of the populist wave in Turkey and the rest of the world. From Venezuela to Ecuador, from Turkey to the USA, the tide had turned since 2018. Although there are several reasons for this change, a critical one was that the populist economic policies had reached their diminishing returns.

The Turkish example

Time has shown that the economy is populists’ soft belly. Populists’ economic policies find public support in the short run through the quick commodification of public properties and redistribution of public funds, reduction of interest rates, or passing tax amnesties. However, in the medium run, these policies are not sustainable and most likely lead to crisis. Indeed, studies show that countries where populists come to power, tend to face an economic downturn in approximately ten years.
This was exactly what happened in Turkey and when the opposition connected corruption to rising economic problems, voters began to pay attention. İstanbul’s (opposition) CHP member Metropolitan Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu’s discursive strategy to frame corruption as “waste” successfully moved the topic from a rather abstract and intellectual one to understandable home economics. Similarly, the Good Party (IYI) leader Meral Akşener’s slogan of “We are against rent-seeking, not projects!” challenged popular rationalizations as “They may steal, but they also work”, and suggested that a different politics was possible. Ankara Metropolitan Mayor (again on the CHP list) Mansur Yavaş’s attempts to increase transparency in municipal procurements and explanations that now less money would go out from the pockets of Ankarites was a success for the same reason. We can tell how significant this was, not just by the international City Mayors Foundation award that he received but also by President Erdoğan asking his own AKP mayors to follow the same procedure in the future.

Politicization of corruption, paralyzing hope

Let’s end the article by remembering the myth of Pandora. Pandora’s box (or jar), which was full of evils, was sent to the human beings by Zeus as a punishment. If human beings had not been too curious, the box would not have been opened, and the evils would not have spread to the world. But human beings were curious. They did open the box, and the evils were released. This was until Pandora, terrified seeing what happened, hastily closed the box. By then, all the evil was out except for one, namely Elpis, or hope.
One may ask, what did hope have to do among the evils? There are various interpretations, but to me, Elpis indicates the kind of hope that pushes us to pacifism. The kind that makes us expect things to change without taking any action to make it happen. The numbing, paralyzing hope is worse than all the other evil. The kind of fantasy that makes the “Little match girl” keep consoling herself in the cold with the weak lights of the matches and slowly freeze to death, rather than searching for help.
Thus, for me, the message we should get from the Pandora documents is to no more view corruption as some remote, abstract problem which “hopefully ends one day”. But as one that directly affects our individual and collective interests and thus requires us to take action.

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