Turkish opposition election victories a chance for real reform

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council officially certified the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu as mayor of Istanbul on Wednesday, 17 days after the March 31 local elections took place.

But İmamoğlu is not yet fully in the clear; the ruling party has lodged a request for the Istanbul vote to be annulled and held again, citing what it says is fraud. If the electoral board approves the AKP request, the people of Istanbul will return to the ballot box in just six weeks, on June 2.

Nevertheless, the CHP and its electoral alliance partners have already achieved significant success in the elections by winning the mayoral seats in the capital city of Ankara and the southern cities of Antalya and Adana, as well as several other major cities around the country. But Istanbul would be the crowning achievement.

It would be dangerous, though, for the CHP to become intoxicated by these victories. Those same metropolitan mayoral seats have the potential to become traps for the party unless courageous steps are taken during their administrations.

Major municipalities like Istanbul and Ankara command very large budgets and are home to the top Turkish conglomerates. 

One natural side of this are the rents produced from projects that are assigned to companies or authorised by the municipality, which exceed by an order of magnitude the size of the budget. Istanbul is a city of nearly 16 million people and still growing. 

Besides controlling the size of the budget, metropolitan municipalities also have the power to make decisions that shape the sociological transformations of their cities.

Thus, mayoral administrations can either prevent or assist large-scale corruption, since public tenders and the power to distribute revenues lie in mayoral hands.

We must not forget that the fight against corruption is in large part a matter of institutional regulation rather than a moral issue. There is, of course, a place for honesty in this struggle, and having an ethical person in a position of responsibility will reduce corruption, but without changing the institutional structures that person could quickly be replaced by a corrupt official.

However, the fight against corruption urgently requires an institutional basis through regulations, to avoid less honest mayors later reversing any gains made by conscientious administrations. 

Yet it is parliament alone that holds the power to push through the institutional, constitutional and legal reforms necessary for this fight, and not local administrations.

The most crucial issue awaiting the CHP in the coming days, as soon as the result of the Istanbul saga is finalised, will be to go on the attack in parliament to push through legal reforms that will reduce corruption, particularly within municipalities.

Four pressing subjects come to mind in this respect, and each is challenging.

The first is to push through an urgently needed law to tax urban rents. It is vital to remember a plan for this was proposed by Ali Babacan, former AKP deputy prime minister, in 2013, and the reaction against it cost him dearly, forcing him to take a long break from political life.

Passing such a law would mean stepping on the toes of a great many powerful individuals and institutions since it would mean turning over a part of their income to be used for the public good. It is a necessary step, but it is bound to create enemies and bring repercussions, as it would diminish one of the most powerful municipal tools: the right to allocate rents.

The second crucial measure is to restore the Chamber of Accounts’ powers to regulate municipal spending, and in so doing bring a measure of transparency back to the institution, which over the years has been considerably weakened. 

If the chamber is given authority to regulate spending by local administrations and automatically publishes the data, this could serve as an example for the central government and limit corruption and unlawful expenditures on a local level.

The third matter of urgency is reform of the public tender law to prevent corruption in this area. Public tenders and procurements are believed by many to be one of the main areas of corruption for Turkey’s current government. 

Fourthly, and most importantly, the opposition should push for a constitutional amendment that grants local administrations the right to impose taxes. If written correctly, there should be no fears of such an amendment paving the way to a federal system.

The current system places the authority to tax in the hands of parliament, but this in a sense boils local administrations’ function down to mechanisms for creating and assigning rent.

If the CHP shies away from the tough battle that will be required to push these reforms through parliament and prefers to carry on with the old system, it will lead to the party become a mirror image of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

However, if the CHP does push for these reforms and finds itself blocked by the AKP, that would show voters just how deeply rooted corruption has become for the ruling party. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.