Turkey on the Edge
The decision by Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board to re-run the elections in Istanbul is not only a blow to Turkey’s already shaky democracy but also to the economy.
According to President Erdoğan the polls were marked by organized corruption and irregularities, which led to a narrow victory of almost 14,000 votes for the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu, who was elected mayor of Metropolitan Istanbul.
In the same ballot envelope, voters could also vote for district mayors and councillors as well as local headmen. Overall, the governing AKP (Justice and Development Party) won almost 46 pct. of the votes and 24 AKP district mayors and 14 CHP district mayors were elected. There was also a single mayor elected for the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party).
However, the Election Board decided to annul only Imamoğlu’s appointment as mayor, arguing that individuals who were not civil servants had been appointed as officials at polling stations. A new election for Metropolitan mayor will be held on June 23. By the same logic, the CHP has called for a re-run of the district elections in Istanbul as well as last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, as there were 10,000 people who were not civil servants on duty at last June’s elections. But the Board’s decision by 7 votes to 4 cannot be appealed.
President Erdoğan and the AKP’s refusal to accept CHP’s candidate rather than their own, former prime minister Binali Yıldirım, as Istanbul’s mayor is understandable.
Despite 44 pct of the overall vote in Turkey (42 pct last June) the AKP lost their two bastions of power, Istanbul and Ankara, as well as a number of other major cities (Izmir on the west coast has always been a CHP stronghold). Cities with more than 60 pct. of Turkey’s GDP now have CHP mayors, but Istanbul has for the AKP been the goose that lays the golden eggs with 30 pct. of the wealth.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s period as Istanbul’s mayor from 1994 to 1998 laid the foundation for the establishment of the AK Party in 2001, and shortly before, Rahmi Koç, the chairman of Koç Holding, Turkey’s largest conglomerate, stated that Erdoğan had acquired a billion dollars to fund the party. Before the AKP came to power in 2002, both Erdoğan and his successor as mayor as well as a number of top officials from Istanbul Municipality faced numerous charges of bid-rigging and fraudulent tenders.
Two months later Erdoğan was acquitted on charges of irregularities regarding his earnings and assets, and the officials were covered by their parliamentary immunity as newly elected deputies as well as an amnesty law passed by the AKP government.
The Public Procurement Law was also amended, excluding the energy, water, transportation and telecommunications sector. This was the first of more than 186 amendments, which has rendered the process of public tenders opaque. As former Constitutional Court president Haşım Kılıç recently said: “Unfortunately, our friends who gained power by saying ‘law and morality first’ have betrayed both law and morality.”
Former Minister of State, Kürşat Tüzmen, who was responsible for foreign trade from 2002 to 2009, says it is the tender system which has caused several important foreign companies to leave Turkey. “It isn’t transparent, legal or predictable.”  Furthermore, it has funneled vast amounts of money to the construction sector.
According to Tüzmen it is this focus on construction and infrastructure rather than manufacturing and technology which has left Turkey far behind its competitors.
Ekrem Imamoğlu has promised new rules of transparency and international standards of accounting, which must be anathema to Erdoğan and the AKP. Istanbul municipality has reportedly applied to a technical company for help in deleting data from its computers, and Imamoğlu’s order for a copy to be made of the muncipality’s databases has been blocked by an administrative court.
In addition, the Interior Ministry has issued a directive, informing mayors that they will no longer be permitted to keep or establish their own municipal databases. Instead, all information will be held centrally and can only be accessed with government permission.
The World Bank has in a study of private participation in infrastructure from 1990 to 2018 ranked five Turkish construction companies, Limak, Cengiz, Kolin, Kalyon and MNG among the world’s top ten winners of public tenders – in the case of the first four, only in Turkey. These four together with another company won the tender in 2013 to build Istanbul’s new mega airport and benefit from other lucrative projects in Istanbul. Limak Holding has made almost $50 billion from public contracts and the four companies made 30 billion lira ($5 billion) in 2017 alone.
The Turkish government has allocated 3.2 billion lira ($530 million) of its 2019 budget to government-affiliated foundations and associations, and a leaked report shows the Istanbul municipality had made a similar allocation of 847 million lira ($140 million) over the years. For example, among the beneficiaries are TÜGVA, an educational foundation, where President Erdoğan’s son, Bilal, sits on the advisory board, TÜRGEV, another educational foundation, where the president’s daughter, Esra Albayrak, is on the executive board, Turkey Technology Team (T3), headed by the president’s son-in-law, Selçuk Bayraktar, and the Archery Foundation, another of Bilal Erdoğan’s projects.
No grants have been made to secularist foundations such as the Atatürkist Thought Association and the Association for the Support of Contemporary Living.
Ekrem Imamoğlu has also made it clear he will put an end to these allocations in accordance with the principle of transparent administration.
A new generation
Despite President Erdoğan’s declared intention of creating a religious generation, a recent survey has shown that the number of young Turks who define themselves as religious or conservative has been halved in the last 10 years. According to Ahmet Kuru, professor of political science at San Diego State University, the current Islamist regime is not leading to an increasing level of personal piety. Instead, it is associated with corruption, bribery, nepotism, injustice and oppression, which has led the regime’s opponents to conclude that religion does not produce ethics. In conclusion, he predicts that the Islamist regime will create a radical reaction: a staunchly secularist new generation.
As Professor Kuru points out, the high probability of a major economic crisis would further weaken the regime’s popularity. However, this is not helped by the ostentatious display of wealth by Turkey’s oligarchs. The extravagance of President Erdoğan’s new palace is one example, another being an article in the pro-government daily Yeni Şafak about the presidential couple’s simple life, which includes drinking white tea at 4,000 lira ($650) a kilo. (This is twice Turkey’s monthly minimum wage).
The recent wedding at the luxury Çırağan Palace Hotel in Istanbul between the offspring of two of Turkey’s richest families, Demirören and Kalyon, also underlines the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Apart from interests in construction, energy, mining, manufacturing, tourism and real estate, the two families together control more than 60 pct. of the Turkish media. The wedding was attended by 2,000 guests, including the president and his wife.
When an Istanbul lawyer complained about the president’s security detail holding up traffic, he was beaten up by the president’s bodyguards and forced to sign a report saying he had insulted the president.
President Erdoğan welcomed the decision to re-run the Istanbul mayoral election and stated that if his government did not bring to account the thieves who stole the national will at the ballot box, the people will demand an explanation.
Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in “A Man of the People”, about the rise and fall of a populist leader, notes: “I thought much afterwards about that proverb, about the man taking things away until the owner at last notices. In the mouth of our people there was no greater condemnation. It was not just a simple question of a man’s cup being full. A man’s cup might be full and none be the wiser.But here the owner knew, and the owner, I discovered, is the will of the whole people.”