Briefing on Civil Service Reform in Turkey

Lack of civil service reform represents a threat to Turkey’s security

Civil service reform could prevent ideologically-motivated groups from infiltrating state apparatus and civil service capacity being denigrated, both existential threats to Turkey, as evidenced by the recent coup and subsequent intrigues.

  • Ideological groups infiltrating Turkey’s state apparatus and the political use of civil service positions denigrate Turkey’s state capacities and have led to upheaval.
  • The Turkish government, whilst distancing itself from religious groups, still finds itself forced to rely on an ideologically-motivated group for support, sustaining this vulnerability.
  • Reforms introducing meritocracy to civil service appointments could help resolve this issue, ultimately an existential security question, and reduce political risk exposure.

Since the attempted military coup in July of this year and subsequent replacements of state employees, Turkey’s state apparatus’ vulnerability to infiltration by ideologically-motivated groups has received renewed attention. Civil servants suspected of ties to the Gülenist movement, erstwhile allies of the government believed to have been behind the coup, have been removed. This has lost Turkish institutions considerable capacity and experience. This is a problem for Turkey. Institutions that have lost out include the judiciary, the police, the armed forces and the intelligence services, which are all crucial for maintaining security and a functioning society.

The potential build-up of institutional knowledge is denigrated by the use of civil service positions for patronage purposes. It does not merely take a coup for tumultuous restructuring to occur. With changes in governments and changes in alliances between groups, functions move around, preventing valuable knowledge accumulation. In the past, successive Turkish governments would fill the civil service with those loyal to them. This would force the subsequent government to do the same or else be faced with a hostile state apparatus. As part of this, governments have given civil service positions to powerful, ideologically-motivated groups. This serves the purpose of rewarding these groups’ loyalty and of maintaining control over institutions. However, it leaves the state vulnerable to these groups.

Now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is racing to replace key figures in state institutions. Erdogan appears to have, surprisingly, turned to the supporters of the Marxist, ultra-nationalist Vatan Partisi (the Homeland Party), which has strong ties to secularist military circles. The Vatan Partisi, whose leader Dogu Perincek was once, ironically, imprisoned (likely at the behest of the Gülenists) for writing that Erdogan’s government would be overthrown, has been allied to that same government since last year. Perincek’s group sees Erdogan’s government as capable of securing a strong Turkey and is useful to the government in being able to obtain loyalty from secularists to replace the support-gap created by the removal of Gülenists.

While this solves the government’s problem in the short term, it is still reliant on an ideologically-motivated group’s presence in state structures for support. This situation leaves the state vulnerable, both to future dramatic upheavals but also the more sustained weakness stemming from a failure to accumulate institutional knowledge, as groups inevitably are replaced. In addition, this gives unelected interest groups influence disproportionate to their size, in this case a party, which received only 125,000 votes in the last election. The government has said it is now wary of any religious organisations’ presence in state structures but appears to have resigned itself to reliance on a strategy similar to the one it used before. Some AKP loyalists are accusing Perincek’s group of clearing out all AKP loyalists along with Gülenists, to embed their organisation in state apparatus.

A solution to all this would be to introduce strictly enforced, meritocratic standards for recruitment and internal progression across all arms of Turkey’s civil service. If successfully implemented, it would make the civil service much harder to infiltrate, and make it off limits as a tool for political patronage, which would discourage governments from allowing ideologically-motivated groups to embed themselves in the first place. It would guarantee greater institutional stability and thereby allow capacity to develop.

Bureaucracies are often resistant to change, particularly when vested interests are so strong. The use of amnesties and pay outs, while costly, may ease the pain. Previous efforts have attempted similar things and had some success. For the sake of the Turkish state’s development and the security of the current government, it would be well worth pushing through more such reforms. Doing so would be a step towards reducing Turkey’s political risk exposure.


20 October 2016

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