January 13, 2015

Building partisan civil service in Turkey

Abdullah Bozkurt

Since political Islamists and pro-Iranian factions took the reins in Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) after they effectively marginalized moderate conservatives, liberals and social democratic wings following the 2011 elections, they have been trying to rebuild the civil service from top to bottom in their own image to perpetuate authoritarian rule for decades to come.

One of the main barriers standing before this undeclared Islamist project is the obligatory status of the State Personnel Examination (KPSS) -- a standard exam for employment in the civil service introduced during the term of late former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, who was the leader of the Democratic Left Party (DSP) and a well-respected politician from both sides of the aisle. The KPSS system brought professionalism and merit and created equal employment opportunities for government jobs at the entry level. By and large it also prevented political and partisan influences from the selection process among candidates.

Thanks to the great investigative work by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman and spokesperson Haluk Koç, who is also a deputy at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), we also learned how the ruling AKP has circumvented the KPSS requirement by abusing the exceptional status for adviser positions for the purpose of placing low-caliber people, most of them close associates and relatives of senior AKP leaders, in the civil service. In fact, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç acknowledged that was the case during budget discussions in Parliament last month.

However, using loopholes and exceptions in the employment of public officials is clearly not enough to revamp the entire civil service to project Islamist ideology among the government rank and file. Political Islamists contemplated that the central exam KPSS requirement must be removed and replaced with oral interviews that would allow them to screen candidates according to their ideological enthusiasm. The rumor circulating in the Turkish capital has it that the AKP has already made up its mind on the change but needs an excuse to justify this partisan move to the public.

A new plot is currently in the works to allow Islamists to crack the door wide open for the employment of partisans and ideological zealots across the civil service. The plot involves a government-orchestrated plan to smear the exam system in order to undermine public confidence in the existing system. When that happens, the government will purportedly unveil a reform package for employment practices for the civil service when in fact the real purpose is to broaden the patronage system chief Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had already established in the upper management.

The template that will be used to convince the public is again based on the conspiracy theory in the name of the "parallel structure," an artificial enemy created by Erdoğan and his ilk in the aftermath of the corruption scandals to place all the blame on Hizmet, a popular social movement that was inspired by contemporary Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who was voted by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2013. Although Erdoğan was not able to provide a single piece of evidence to back up claims of conspiracy, the "parallel" propaganda nevertheless helped Erdoğan survive graft investigations that incriminated him and his family members.

Erdoğan also used his own concocted conspiracy to conduct a wide-scale witch-hunt in the police and judiciary to eliminate nationalists, social democrats, Alevis and those affiliated with opposition political parties and Hizmet. Soon the same campaign will be launched about the exam system by rehashing old claims of irregularities in the 2010 KPSS exam, which were investigated but did not result in a trial when the government did not charge any suspect who was detained in the probe. The Islamists plan to exploit this botched investigation as part of a false-flag operation to accomplish their long-sought goals of overtaking the whole civil service in Turkey.

In other words, the 2010 scandal will be the pretext for the political Islamists to do away with the KPSS system in order to ensure partisan loyalties are the qualifying factor in landing a job in public employment rather than non-partisan meritocracy in the future. The "parallel paranoia" will be deliberately propagated by the government-subsidized media, which run fabricated and sensationalized stories in order to mute the public outcry from many quarters of society, who are justifiably worried that the government is engaged in an effort to transform civil servants into Islamist partisans.

The process involved doing away with the merit-based appointments mechanism that involves the independent agency that administers a multiple-choice questionnaire for candidates who seek public employment. The system that was put in place to blunt any outside influence following a national outcry in the late 1990s will be replaced by a new one, which will allow politicians to interfere in the selection of personnel in the middle and lower strata of the civil service.

In the end, employment in public services will be completely dependent on political affiliation with the prevailing ideology of the ruling party determining selection and promotion. Then, Erdoğan calculates, it will be much easier to cash in on corruption, favoritism, cronyism and influence peddling in the government and business world.

This major design by Islamists, if it goes unchallenged, will take the civil service away from professionalism, integrity, performance management and non-partisanship. Through their newly acquired influence in hiring and assignments practices, the ideological zealots will gain the ability to influence policy in this country long after they are ousted from power. This will have detrimental and far-reaching effects on the civil service in Turkey because the lingering impact of partisanship will continue to be felt even if the Islamists depart from government one day.

In the meantime, the long-running endeavor for building professional capacity in the civil service will be thwarted and a pervasive nepotism, corruption and favoritism will be institutionalized in the bureaucracy. This will leave future generations of Turkey with the monumental task of undoing the damage done by Islamists in the medium and long term. It will also paralyze the service with partisanship, polarization and ideology in the short term as well. The scope and the real impact of these ill-advised policies will be seen more clearly when the power change occurs in the government.

I believe the Democratic Left Party (DSP) is right on the target when it said that Erdoğan and his Islamist brethren have been engaging in efforts to create the real parallel state by completely transforming the civil service in Turkey. The irony is that they are doing it under the pretense of eliminating an unidentified parallel structure upon which they dump all kinds of conspiracy theories, including a series of plots to topple the Erdoğan regime that was designed and supported by the US, the EU, Israel and major powers in the world and that had the collaboration of the opposition parties, businesses, civil society and media at home. In that sense, The New York Times editorial in December titled “Turkey's Descent into Paranoia” articulated the dangers of an authoritarian slide in Turkey under the shadow of conspiracy madness.

If political Islamists are somehow able to secure a partisan and ideological civil service, then there is no turning back from the shift in the axis of Turkey's orientation. With a government service that is completely ideological, it would be impossible to sustain the transatlantic ties and the engagement with European institutions, including accession talks with the EU. The divergence with the Arab and Muslim world would also be inevitable given the long-term implications of permeating political Islamist ideology in the civil service. Considering the dynamics in its economy, politics and social strata, Turkey simply cannot survive in a troubled region under this paradigm shift.

Published on Today's Zaman, 12 January 2015, Monday