Turkish opposition’s İmamoğlu needs real changes to tackle corruption

The opposition candidate in the rerun of the vote to elect a new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, has raised public hopes for tackling endemic corruption in Turkey.

İmamoğlu was declared the winner of the March 31 mayoral election, but the electoral authority ordered the vote held again on June 23 after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) objected to what it said were ballot irregularities.

Since İmamoğlu’s apparent election victory, many reports have appeared in the media on corruption and cronyism during 25 years of control of the city by the AKP and its predecessor Islamist parties. If the second vote again goes against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan it will hurt both his party and the groups it supports through patronage networks funded by the municipality.

Istanbul, a city of some 16 million people, produces nearly a third of Turkey’s GDP and its mayor controls an annual budget of 23.8 billion liras ($4.1 billion), which increases to 35 billion liras when income from transport and utilities companies are included.

İmamoğlu said last month that Istanbul’s debt had increased 4.5 times to 27 billion liras since 2014, while its annual budget deficit had ballooned 20-fold to 4 billion liras. İmamoğlu has pledged to save about 5 billion liras in the budget by preventing waste and introducing effective financial management.

But a personal pledge is not enough, İmamoğlu needs to make institutional changes if he really wants to tackle corruption.

Since it came to power 17 years ago, the AKP has made numerous changes to the public procurement law and used clauses meant for extraordinary circumstances to make graft and corruption the norm. Municipalities, including those controlled by İmamoğlu’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), have also used tenders to favour friendly businesses and build up patronage networks.

Mayors are not immune to the demands of their parties so only institutional changes can be effective against corruption.

İmamoğlu has the backing of a significant part of Turkish society, who, thanks to the results of March 31, now share their opinions with less fear. They demand an end to widespread corruption, graft and favouritism and hope for a different Turkey.

İmamoğlu is running against Binali Yıldırım, who as former transport minister was responsible for many of the mega-projects built through government tenders that were neither transparent nor accountable and gave rise to suspicions of corruption.

But all those tenders were carried out within the law, using the loopholes in the public procurement law; the same law that applies to municipalities.

What makes corruption in Turkey difficult to tackle is the fact that it is not carried out in an illegal way, but by following existing laws and regulations and so cannot be legally challenged.

According to the law, public authorities can use three methods in procurement tenders; an open procedure, a restricted procedure and a negotiated procedure.

Open procedure, which should be the norm, is defined as a procedure where all would-be contractors submit tenders.

In the restricted procedure, public agencies have the power to invite a group of contractors to tender according to pre-qualifications set by the contracting authority.

According to the law, the negotiated procedure should be used only in cases of unforeseen events such as natural disasters and epidemics, when specific events relating to defence and security require immediate action. It can also be used when procurement requires a research and development process, is not subject to mass production, in cases when it is impossible to define the technical and financial aspects of the works, goods or services to be procured due to their specific and complex characteristics, and for procurements with estimated costs of up to 50 billion liras ($8.6 billion).

The law also allows direct procurement for a more restricted set of tenders when needs can be met from only one natural or legal person.

Utku Çakırözer, a member of parliament for the CHP, said in March that in 2018, 30 billion liras worth of public tenders in Turkey were decided using non-transparent methods, while tenders totalling 33 billion liras were lodged as an exception to the Public Procurement Law. While total public procurement in 2018 stood at 175 billion liras, only 37 billion liras worth of tenders were decided according to the transparent tender procedure.

In 2018 alone, the AKP-controlled Istanbul municipality set aside more than 16 billion liras for investment and large amounts of money were thus channelled to government-linked businesses.

Given the size of the Istanbul municipality’s budget and the amount of investment it needs to make, applying open procedures to public tenders could make a huge difference to levels of corruption through more transparency and accountability.

If İmamoğlu wants to create real change, he should declare that he will not use the exceptional procedures allowed by the procurement law.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval

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