Misuse of taxpayers’ money problem in presidential campaign

Amid calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his campaign for the presidency, experts have told Today’s Zaman that the most important issue is the possible misuse of taxpayers’ money and state funds, rather than resignation.

The law on presidential elections in Turkey — which was passed in 2012, following on from the change made in the way the president is elected in Turkey after the 2007 election — does not require the resignation of the prime minister if he or she runs for president, unlike for almost all other public officials. As a result, there is no legal problem preventing Erdoğan from running for president while remaining in his position. However, the opposition has claimed that there are ethical issues involved and concern over the use of state funds in the run-up to the election.

On Monday Erdoğan responded to criticism by mentioning examples from the Western world. He said neither US President Barack Obama nor German Chancellor Angela Merkel resigned from their public positions during their candidacy and that “there is no such custom” either at home or abroad.

Prominent political scientist Professor Ersin Kalaycıoğlu told Today’s Zaman on Tuesday that there are differences between the system in Turkey and those in Germany and the US. According to him, in a parliamentary system, the resignation of the prime minister when he or she runs again is not required. “The problem is the usage of state funds,” Kalaycıoğlu said, adding that in the Western world, there are unwritten ethical rules that oblige politicians to refrain from using public resources in their campaigns.

Kalaycıoğlu referred to the importance of the principle of fairness in elections and says that elections cannot be considered democratic if standards of fair play are not applied. In Turkey, Kalaycıoğlu said, public funds and resources are being spent in favor of one candidate, Prime Minister Erdoğan. “It does not matter if he resigns or not as long as he does not use taxpayers’ money,” Kalaycıoğlu asserted.

Ergun Özbudun, another prominent political scientist and a professor of constitutional law, says that there is no parallel between the current election race in Turkey and the previous elections in Germany and the US. “Merkel ran for re-election as chancellor,” he said, while Erdoğan wants to run for president while he is still prime minister. However, according to Özbudun, as long as public funds are not spent in the election campaign of Erdoğan, there would be no problem for him to remain in his position.

The discomfort over the use of public resources is not a concern specific to Turkey. In 2012, Republicans in the US filed a complaint with government investigators arguing that President Obama used the taxpayers’ money by traveling in Air Force One to swing states. They described Obama’s trip as “thinly veiled campaign events.”

In response, the White House said that the trips were part of the official responsibility of the president. Political trips are defined in the US as travel to a destination not as commander-in-chief but as de facto leader of a political party for fundraisers, campaign rallies or party events. Despite that definition, “gray areas” remain in the American system as well. “When they [the president and vice president] travel and appear in public to defend their policy positions, the difference between their official duties and their activities as leaders of their political party can be difficult to assess,” the Congressional Research Service reported in 2007.

Similarly, Erdoğan has been criticized for using the private jet “Ana” which is allocated for the president and the prime minister in Turkey. However, unlike in the US, politicians in Turkey are not asked to reimburse taxpayers for their political trips. One recent exception was President Abdullah Gül’s trip to Boston in May when he attended his son’s graduation ceremony. Gül declared that it was a private trip and he met the expenses.

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Bursa deputy Aykan Erdemir, who used to be an academic at Harvard University, says that the systems in the US and Turkey are not comparable since in Turkey, Erdoğan is trying to switch from the Prime Ministry to the Presidency while still in office. However, in the US or in Germany, the politicians Erdoğan referred to were candidates who ran again for the same position in the executive branch.

Calling the current presidential race “unfair,” Erdemir says that taxpayers’ money is being spent on the personal career of a politician, Prime Minister Erdoğan. According to Erdemir, a long-term solution to the problem lies in a far-reaching law on campaign financing in Turkey. He adds that in addition to laws and watchdogs, the ethical principles of politicians are also determinant in conducting a fair campaign. He says the problem in Turkey is “systemic” since the usage of public funds has not been carefully regulated. Erdemir argues that the abuse of public funds is not restricted to this election campaign, but is a longstanding problem. 

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About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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