assessments

How Turkish Politics Are Built

8 MINS READMar 28, 2014 | 13:26 GMT
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a crowd during an election rally in Ankara on March 22.
(ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a crowd during an election rally in Ankara on March 22.
There was a time when the construction cranes dotting the Istanbul skyline seemed a sign of Turkey's economic promise. Foreign investors came from afar to tap into Turkey's potential as the latest and greatest emerging market, while a slew of construction projects provided the jobs and economic growth to convince a majority of Turks that the government was fulfilling its social contract and thus remained worthy of their votes. 
 
From the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 until 2000, the cumulative stock of foreign direct investment stood at just under $19 billion. Under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (also known by its Turkish acronym, AKP), Turkey exceeded that figure each year from the start of EU accession negotiations in 2005 until the onset of the European crisis in 2009. But in the tumultuous weeks leading up to Turkey's pivotal municipal elections, the same blueprints and construction tenders that were once so widely celebrated have become ammunition for Turkey's rival political forces, leaving investors wary of Turkey's shaky political future.
 
Plans to remake Gezi Park into a shopping mall triggered nationwide demonstrations in June 2013 and unleashed long pent-up anger at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Later, in December, allies of charismatic prayer leader Fethullah Gulen, a former AKP ally who has been self-exiled for more than a decade in the United States, organized the arrests of the sons of several top AKP ministers. They accused them of rigging state tenders, accepting bribes while overseeing major construction projects and even illegally selling historical artifacts unearthed during the construction of a major rail project. 
 
Erdogan and Kadir Topbas, the Istanbul mayor for the past decade who is now fighting to keep the office under the control of the AKP, have responded by forwarding more plans for grandiose construction projects. In one example, Erdogan has proposed the creation of a canal that would create a faux Bosporus running alongside the original — a plan Erdogan himself has termed "crazy." Other projects include a proposal to build the world's largest airport and the extension of hundreds of kilometers of railways to alleviate Istanbul's infamous vehicular gridlock. As Topbas put it recently, "I want to be remembered as a mayor who built railways for this city."

Istanbul Has Seen This Before

Turkey's politicians, however, are more likely to be remembered — rightfully or not — for their alleged links to a variety of corruption cases. A similar narrative played out in the 1989 municipal elections, when then-Prime Minister Turgut Ozal's center-right Motherland Party was surprised by a resounding defeat that stripped the party of the Istanbul mayoralty. Bedrettin Dalan, who had been Istanbul's mayor for five years before the 1989 loss, also ran on a campaign of ambitious infrastructure projects, including skyscrapers, five-star hotels, an Olympic stadium and more. Lauding his plans for sewage and water treatment, the blue-eyed engineer-turned-minister said, "The waters of the Golden Horn will be the same color as my eyes." And in fact the once-vile waterway, a creek-fed bay off the Bosporus, now flows blue. But Dalan, who was expected to win some 70 percent of the vote according to polls, found himself on the losing end, and a stack of corruption charges was later filed against him. Today, Dalan lives in exile and faces terrorism charges over his alleged involvement in the Ergenekon plot to overthrow the AKP.

Political victory and defeat by boondoggle is a familiar phenomenon in Turkey — and social media bans and passionate appeals from the European Union to end corruption will do little to reverse it.

The government is the primary player in Turkey's major infrastructure projects. It manages the finances, grants the permits, commissions the environmental studies and awards the contracts. Throughout this process, there is ample space to pad budget estimates with political favors masked as miscellaneous costs. Indeed, having an extra apartment in Istanbul from which to facilitate and conceal bribes is not an alien concept for Turkey's political and business elite. Turkey, after all, is a country that runs on populist patronage — where public works are an ideal vehicle to simultaneously award voters and political allies. Each generation of leaders since the first multiparty elections in 1950 has created its own tender-based bourgeoisie. The AKP has only perfected the art, thanks to resources from abroad that the party's predecessors never dreamed of.

The Power of the Mayor's Office

The Istanbul mayoralty is in many ways the epicenter of this tradition. Whoever holds the office also holds the power to approve these ambitious development projects. This puts the mayor on a direct — though rocky — path to power. For example, Erdogan was groomed for the Istanbul mayoralty by Islamist politician Necmettin Erbakan, who himself briefly served as prime minister in 1996, two years after his protege took office at city hall.
During his term as mayor, which began in 1994, Erdogan built up a strong network of supporters, including critical allies within Gulen's movement, through various public works that helped pave Istanbul roads, extricated organized crime rings from the garbage disposal business and distributed clean water to residents through newly laid pipelines. In 1998, Turkey's secular Kemalist faction uprooted Erdogan from the position and jailed him for reciting a controversial Islamic poem — he was charged with inciting religious hatred. After a 10-month jail sentence for Erdogan, and a string of failed coalition governments and an economic crisis for Turkey, Erdogan had built the reputation and the network of supporters he needed to chart his path to the premiership in 2002.
 
Once in power, Erdogan quickly began the work of institutionalizing his patronage network. Police forces, schools, media outlets, courts and business associations were quickly stacked with allies who could propel a more conservative class, with its roots in Anatolia, to challenge the primacy of Istanbul's Kemalist elite. A key element of this network was the Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gulen. Gulenist businessmen, journalists, policemen, judges and politicians provided a web of relationships that Erdogan could rely on to mobilize the vote. In return, Hizmet was able to use the AKP platform to ensure its ideological aim of neutralizing the military's political clout. But once that goal was largely achieved through the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, the Hizmet-AKP alliance started to fray over differences in policy preferences. Confident after having neutralized the military, Erdogan assessed that it was time to start curtailing the influence of his own allies.
 
The result has been the fracturing of his carefully constructed clientelist network. Hizmet's break with the AKP will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the AKP's performance in the March 30 municipal elections, the August presidential race and the parliamentary polls in June 2015. 

There is no viable alternative to the AKP in place for this election cycle, meaning the Hizmet vote will ironically be picked up by the leading Kemalist party — the center-left Republican People's Party, or CHP.

A Period of Political Uncertainty Sets In

In the evolution of patronage politics, ideological compromises can be expected. For its part, the CHP is attempting to bridge the gap between its secular base and the more religious dissidents of the AKP by pinning its hopes on Mustafa Sarigul as its candidate for Istanbul mayor. Though the 58-year-old politician is currently the mayor of Istanbul's posh European Sisli burrough, he, like Erdogan, had more humble beginnings. Sarigul grew up in a small village in eastern Anatolia before rising quickly to the summit of Istanbul politics. Like Erdogan, Sarigul has set himself apart by bridging religious conservatism with capitalism. And like Erdogan, Sarigul faces his own share of corruption allegations over development projects — all part and parcel of the election cycle. 
 
On the ballot, Sarigul is competing against AKP incumbent Topbas for the Istanbul mayoralty, but this is effectively a contest between Sarigul and Erdogan, who maintains as much, if not more, influence in Istanbul as prime minister today than he did when he served as mayor. Voting in Turkey's other large cities will also be an effective referendum on Erdogan's rule. The AKP's hold on the capital, Ankara, is as much up for grabs as the CHP's lock on one of its last bastions, the Aegean city of Izmir.
 
Beyond the vote, the fracturing of Erdogan's patronage network will have a profound impact on Turkey's fragile political future. As alliances crack, Erdogan's institutional grip will also continue to slip, with the courts and media serving as the main battleground for a prolonged political crisis. The drooping confidence of the AKP will reinvigorate the epochal political struggle between Turkey's secular and religious poles. And in this round of the struggle, the catalyst that sparked the AKP's drive to power will be the same that consumes it, with Gulen's movement unopposed to forming a tactical alliance with the CHP to weaken Erdogan and his party.
 
The AKP, like its predecessors, started to build its power through large-scale construction projects. And like its predecessors, it risks losing that power through associated allegations of corruption. But whether Erdogan succeeds in holding onto the mayor's seat through Topbas, or Sarigul heralds a comeback for the CHP in the coming election, any political party in Turkey will uphold the tradition of political patronage, where bridges, roads, airports and governments will inevitably be built with greasy palms.

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