Edited by Abby Sonnier
Erdoğan has been elected on the promise to tackle the corruption that enabled construction companies to build unsafe infrastructures, worsening the death toll of the devastating 1999 earthquakes in Northwestern Turkey. However, the 2023 earthquake’s death toll demonstrates that he was not able to hold his promise. The earthquake and its aftermath caused 50,000 deaths and left millions displaced in addition to the 156,000 buildings and structures destroyed. Some say that Erdoğan was elected because of the 1999 earthquakes and that, paradoxically, the 2023 earthquakes will lead to his political loss.
Erdogan’s failure to learn from the mistakes that led to the catastrophic 1999 earthquakes, particularly in the wake of the recent disaster, spells trouble for him in the upcoming May 14 elections. The Turkish economy under Erdoğan has relied more than ever on the construction boom and cronies who were awarded infrastructure projects without selection or proper regulatory monitoring. These crony companies that should have never won these contracts built shoddy infrastructure, including residential housing, in high-risk locations without regard for proper building regulations.
While Erdogan came to power democratically, largely supported by his Islamist base, it is thanks to crony capitalism, an economic system characterized by mutually advantageous relationships between business leaders and government officials, that he has been able to stay in power for the past 21 years. More specifically, Erdoğan created a new elite, providing them immunities and special privileges, largely through the awarding of colossal infrastructure contracts, in exchange for their loyalty.
Since 2002, Erdoğan’s strategy to boost construction projects has had two advantages. First, it feeds his crony basis and has sustained a dependence on the regime. Second, these mega projects create short-term positive externalities. For instance, the creation of huge low-cost apartment complexes throughout the country ensured the support of the poorer share of the population benefiting from a low-price housing boom while the launch of mega projects such as the Istanbul airport or Kanal Istanbul created temporary employment, giving the illusion that the economic situation is improving.
Crony capitalist strategies are not new in Turkey. Under the Ottoman Empire, the regime wanted to get rid of the Christian business class that was challenging the state political regime. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) was the political party in power during the last decade of the empire that created a Muslim bourgeoisie to support the regime. In exchange for this support, Muslim businessmen made huge profits during WW1. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey continued this tradition of crony capitalism, relying on public sector tenders to ensure that the business class is politically reliable. While crony capitalism has not been invented by the AKP, it has been reinforced since 2002 when Erdoğan came into power.
The patron-client relationship between Erdoğan’s government and its cronies hinders the emergence of an independent political civil society. Instead, infrastructure project revenue provides Erdoğan the option to mobilize a state-controlled media arsenal to spread its control over institutions, further corrupting the system and decreasing transparency.
This kind of soft corruption, the legal manipulation of regulations by political leaders for personal gains rather than for public good, is entirely aligned with Erdogan’s national strategy. There are many loopholes in the public procurement law that enable Erdoğan and the regime’s cronies to escape accountability. This law, which was written in alignment with World Bank, IMF, and EU recommendations to tackle corruption, was adopted as part of Turkey’s bid for EU membership as a way to increase transparency. Nevertheless, after the legislation was adopted, the AKP dismantled it piece by piece through 150 amendments designed to give the government more discretion in the attribution of tenders contracts and reduce the transparency of the process. Furthermore, in 2018 prior to the presidential election, Erdoğan passed a ‘construction amnesty’ regulation offering forgiveness to all builders who had not observed building regulations in exchange for a fine. With this regulation, poor-quality construction and dangerous building projects were legalized.
Erdoğan is a machiavellian interested in his power rather than in the public good of the country he has been governing for more than two decades. In order to save his image for the upcoming election, Erdoğan’s government arrested building contractors who were in charge of the collapsed buildings. However, these arrests were purely political since it is because of the government that these projects were approved.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of Turkey’s largest opposition party stated when visiting Hatay Province after the earthquake “They turned houses into graves for those who live in them. One should ask, did they listen to their conscience while issuing construction amnesty?” The coming election on May 14 may be a way to hold Erdoğan accountable for his long-lasting bad governance. In any case, if Erdoğan is replaced, the new government will have the hard task of purging many of Erdogan’s corrupt officials and changing a system that has been based on crony capitalism for more than a century.