Turkish bureaucracy under liquidation

They refrain is ubiquitous: Government should be smaller, bureaucracy is intrinsically evil, and the best form of government is one in which efficient decisions are made by a narrow team that is elected, not appointed. What they describe is the oriental copy of 1980s Thatcher/Reagan era of neoliberal deregulation. Nothing new there.

There is no guarantee that methods that work in the Anglo-Saxon world would translate easily to the Turkish world. Moreover, the supposedly positive effects that less government in those countries have had on law and order and individual safety are debatable. Thirdly, bureaucracy and government are at the core of Turkey’s governing traditions.

The real skill lies not in eradicating or minimising these structures, but rather, decentralising, spreading decision-making mechanisms to local authorities, and in short, in being able to share the powers of governance. The current government clearly has no intention, vision, or disposition towards such a power-sharing arrangement. They have no vision other than concentrating executive power entirely in one person’s hands.

Nearly a decade ago, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, criticised semi-autonomous institutions by complaining that: “The drum hangs on our necks, but the mallets are in their hands”. Eventually, in August 2011, the government ended the relative autonomy of 10 regulatory and supervisory institutions.

These 10 institutions were the Radio and Television Supreme Council, the Telecommunications Institution, the Capital Markets Board, the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency, the Energy Market Regulation Agency, the Public Procurement Authority, the Competition Authority, the Sugar Authority, the Tobacco, Tobacco Products, and Alcoholic Beverages Market Regulation Board, and the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund. Another economic institution that gradually lost its autonomy and came under full government control is the central bank.

Now, not only autonomous institutions, but also the entire central government apparatus is coming under the control of Erdoğan and the Presidential Palace. The latest government decrees are eradicating all discretionary power in Turkey’s bureaucracy.

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There are two similar political examples from the recent past worth remembering at this point. One was successful; the other was a total fiasco.

When I was working for the United Nations at in the early 1990s, I met Ján Langoš. He was one of the leading opposition figures in communist Czechoslovakia. He was a Slovak, and he unfortunately passed away in a car accident. Before the country was split in two, he was the minister of the interior from 1990 to 1992 under Václav Havel‘s administration. I met him then. He explained that he and his colleagues had discussed at length what to do with the state bureaucracy, which was inevitably subservient to the regime, that they would inherit after the communist regime collapsed. They realised that the country would become ungovernable if they sent the entire bureaucracy packing. As a result, they preferred a smooth yet controlled transition, and were successful.

The Czechoslovakian example does not translate to the Turkish regime, but is significant for its administrative model. Especially for a country like Turkey, in which state and bureaucratic traditions prevail, the liquidation of the bureaucracy would make the country unmanageable.

Now let us consider the second example: Iraq under U.S. occupation. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, his Baath Party controlled the entire bureaucracy. As part of its de-Baathification policy, one of the first acts of the U.S. occupation government was to dissolve the bureaucracy. This was Paul Bremer’s famous first decree. As a result the Iraqi administration first faltered and then crumbled. Ministries were plundered; the electrical grid and oil infrastructure were wrecked.

As de-Baathification dissolved the bureaucracy, it also destroyed institutional memory. Fifteen years later, Iraq still has not regained normality, nor is it clear when it will be able to do so.

The point here is not to compare the Turkish regime’s confrontation with bureaucracy with the purge of the communist system in Czechoslovakia and Saddam’s Sunni domination in Iraq. Rather, these are examples of anti-bureaucratic policies, which are not bound to a specific ideology. While Czechoslovakians proceeded with caution, the arrogant U.S. administration took a sword to the existing bureaucracy and laid the groundwork for the government’s collapse.

Bear in mind, although the time for strong central administrations like that of Turkey has passed, the state in Turkey passes as the nation’s safeguard. Its central pillars are the military, the judiciary, the academia, the foreign service, the civil administration, and the Treasury. The long-time disintegration of the civil service will soon begin to permeate the country.

Already in the current administration, there are almost no government officials at the undersecretary and assistant secretary levels who have not pledged loyalty to the regime. The servility of the judiciary is proverbial. The military appears to be the regime’s army. The foreign service is never consulted. Academicians try to lay low in order to maintain their positions. The Treasury’s condition is no secret. The civil service has become the regime’s officialdom.

Can you imagine the total disaster when more will ensue with the passage of the latest decrees?

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