Turkey: Nearing the End of its “Winter Sleep”
Author: Assistant Professor Behlül Özkan, Marmara University, İstanbul Date: Jun 16, 2014 Domestic Policy, Political Analysis
Turkey: Nearing the End of its “Winter Sleep”
AKP (Justice and Development Party), which came to power in 2002, managed to get 43% of the popular vote in March 2014 local elections despite Gezi protests and corruption investigations that started after 17 December 2013. This article analyses the political reasons behind AK Party’s six elections and two referenda successes since 2002. Based on Soma mining disaster, the neoliberal policies of Turkey and the dynamics of the Presidential and General Elections, both of which will take place in the next twelve months, are investigated in this article.
On May 24, 2014, for the second time in the history of the Cannes Film Festival, a Turkish film won the festival’s highest accolade, the Palme d’Or. 32 years ago, the award went to Yılmaz Güney’s “Yol” (“The Way”), a film made in the oppressive atmosphere following the 1980 military coup; thus, it hardly seems a coincidence that Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” (“Kış Uykusu”), filmed in today’s increasingly authoritarian Turkey, has won the same prize. As a matter of fact, Ceylan announced at the award ceremony that he was dedicating “Winter Sleep” to the young people who lost their lives during the Gezi protests. Interestingly, Turkish TV channels did not – or could not – broadcast the award ceremony, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was giving a speech in Cologne, Germany at the same time.
The AKP was expected to suffer in the local elections of March 30, 2014 due to several factors. First, there were the Gezi protests – in which hundreds of thousands of people marched against the country’s increasing authoritarianism – along with the brutal suppression of growing public opposition by police violence. Second, a corruption probe of prominent figures in the ruling party began on December 17. Prior to the elections, it was predicted that AKP would lose a huge number of votes after tape recordings of conversations between Prime Minister Erdoğan and his family, his ministers, and his business associates – which were said to constitute evidence of bribery – were released on the internet. Numerous allegations of corruption emerged at the time, such as the involvement of Erdoğan’s ministers in the illicit gold trade with Iran; the favoritism shown by AKP municipalities to pro-AKP construction companies in granting permission to build on valuable locations in the city center; and the purchase of newspapers and TV channels by businessmen with close ties to the Prime Minister, with the aim of creating a pro-government media.
In light of these allegations, Erdoğan set himself the goal of winning 38.8% of the vote – the same percentage the AKP received in the 2009 local elections – rather than the 50% of the vote which the AKP netted in the 2011 general elections. Though the AKP’s votes decreased from 21 million in the 2011 general elections to 19 million in this year’s local elections, and though its percent of the vote went down to 43%, Erdoğan proved unbeatable yet again. Over the past 12 years, the AKP has won six elections and two referendums by a wide margin. The 90% of the electorate that voted for the AKP in the 2011 elections has continued to support the party, showing that it either disregarded the corruption allegations or else has embraced the common sentiment that “There would still be corruption even if the opposition parties came to power; the AKP at least provides services to the people.” This article will address the issue of why, despite increasing political authoritarianism and allegations of corruption, a large segment of society continues to support the AKP, remaining in a “Winter Sleep.”
Without a doubt, Erdoğan’s great oratorical skill, political charisma, and knack for image management have played a large part in his success at the ballot box. Let prosecutors, opposition parties, and the media claim what they would; for three and a half months prior to the elections, in public squares, in newspapers, and on television channels, Erdoğan repeatedly declared that such allegations had been cooked up by foreign interests (international lobbies) and traitors in collusion with those interests. Does the fact that the AKP – despite these controversies – got 43% of the vote in the March 30 local elections mean that most voters ignored the corruption allegations? Or does it mean that the AKP electorate was swayed by Erdoğan’s question, “How could the national income increase from 230 billion dollars to 800 billion dollars in 10 years in a country where there is corruption?” Konda Research and Consultancy has found that 77% of Turkish society believes that government ministers and their sons were bribed, while according to the Metropoll Research Company, 60% of Turkish people approve of the corruption and bribery investigations. However, the same research companies also predicted that even if the majority of the electorate believed in the allegations of corruption and bribery, it would continue to support Erdoğan; the election results have shown this to be case. In order to understand which way Turkish politics are heading prior to the presidential elections in August 2014 and the general elections in June 2015, it is crucial to answer the question of why the electorate continues to support the ruling party. Contrary to the claim of political commentator Ömer Laçiner – who has said that if the AKP won more than 40% of the votes, it would mean that voters approved of corruption – the Turkish electorate votes based on economic motives (as in many Western democracies) and therefore supports the AKP. The main question, however, is this: how long will it be possible to sustain the neoliberal economic policies which began to be implemented during the Özal era and which were embraced by the AKP – policies which account for much of the party’s electoral success?
The Mirror of the Turkish Political Economy: The Soma Mine Disaster
The Soma mine disaster of May 13, 2014, in which 301 people died, was one of the most deadly workplace accidents the world has seen in its 250-year history of industrialization. However, shortly before the accident, the mine where this tragedy took place was portrayed by its owner and several government ministers as a model establishment. The General Directorate of Turkish Coal (TKİ) mined 1 million tons of coal in 2004; after the mine was privatized in 2005, this amount increased to 3.4 million tons. In 2011, 65% of a total of 11.3 million tons of coal was extracted from those privatized mines. Furthermore, at a press conference two years ago, the owner of Soma Holding explained how his company had lowered the cost of extracting coal from 130-140 dollars (its cost under the TKİ) to 23.8 dollars. Visiting the mining facilities at Soma just nine months before the disaster, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yıldız declared that “this mine is an exemplary one.” Indeed, the process by which coal is extracted at a low cost and at a high profit is a good way to understand Turkey’s transformation over the past 12 years: 1) The government reduces costs by leasing its coal mines to private companies. 2) Mining companies employ thousands of workers in the coal mining sector, turning the profits they make from their mines into an investment in the sector which drives the Turkish economy: construction. 3) The government distributes the cheap coal to the poor, thus maintaining support for the ruling party. In short, until the day of the fatal accident, a wide-scale system of patronage and populism, benefiting the ruling party, was in place in the “perfectly run” mines of Soma. This system encompassed different sectors such as mining and construction, providing sundry benefits such as increased employment and continued electoral support for the AKP. Considering that the amount of coal distributed to the poor exceeded two million tons (20% of the amount extracted annually at Soma) and that an average of two million families are receiving this aid, we are speaking of a populism which affects eight million people. When one also considers that the CEO of Soma Holding also owns a 56-storey skyscraper called the Spine Tower in the center of Istanbul (at a height of 227 meters, it is one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers), the Soma disaster clearly reflects the state of the Turkish economy today.
Right after the Soma tragedy, Prime Minister Erdoğan described this disaster – in which 301 people lost their lives – as an ordinary accident, saying that “Such occurrences are normal. In the literature on the subject, one speaks of a ‘work accident.’ These events are natural and inevitable.” The efforts of the government to portray the accident as an ordinary occurrence by citing examples of coal mine accidents in Europe and the USA from the second half of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century prove that Turkey has reverted to the status quo in the West prior to the rise of social democracies, with profit being a higher priority than worker safety and working conditions. Rendering the coal miners’ unions powerless, putting pressure on workers to produce more through the subcontracting system, ignoring the serious flaws and deficiencies in the mines which became known during inspections by state officials (for fear that they would slow down production and reduce profits) – these were the main reasons why 301 workers lost their lives.
Another point to be emphasized is that the AKP won the local elections in Soma with a strong margin (43% of the vote) just a month and a half before the disaster. Working under tough conditions for 1400 TL per month (one and a half times the minimum wage), the workers significantly increased their expenditures on housing, cars, and household appliances, having taken out bank loans for this purpose. This reality is best illustrated in the answer of coal miner Bayram Çakan to a question by a reporter from NTV immediately following the disaster: “Will you go back into the mine?” “Yes, we have to, because we have debts with the bank. We have to pay them.” In short, coal miners have become dependent on banks, taking on a heavy burden of debt to fund their increased levels of consumption; as a result, they are obliged to work without complaint under dangerous and life-threatening conditions.
Building a Society Dependent on Consumption and Loans
One of the main arguments Erdoğan often uses when giving electoral campaign speeches in public squares is that the national income has increased threefold, now exceeding 10 thousand USD. Accordingly, Süleyman Demirel’s campaign slogan in the 1991 elections promising “two keys” (a house and a car) for every family came true 20 years later under the AKP. The underlying cause of Erdoğan’s victories at the ballot box has been his ability to deliver on this pledge of “two keys,” which was regarded as a mere daydream during the 1990s. Indeed, while there were 4.6 million automobiles in Turkey in 2002, this number doubled after the AKP came to power, reaching nine million by 2013. The number of automobile sales increased from 91 thousand to 665 thousand during the same period. In similar fashion, there has been a boom in the construction sector as well. Fewer than 200 thousand apartments were granted licenses in 2002; after 2005, this number fluctuated between 500 and 600 thousand every year. Since 2002, Turkey has spent an average of 53 billion USD annually (18 billion from the state and 35 billion from the public); total expenditures on construction have exceeded 600 billion dollars under Erdoğan. Lower interest rates for loans in Turkey, along with increased global capital, paved the way for the boom in consumption during these years. While the monthly interest on mortgages was above 5% in 2002, it had decreased to 0.68% by 2013. With the decrease in interest rates, consumer loans grew 125 times in 12 years, increasing from 2 billion lira to 249.5 billion lira, while there was a 21-fold increase in credit card debt, from 4 billion lira to 84 billion lira. During the same period, the usage volume of mortgage credit increased more than 500 times as well. In short, the consumption boom experienced by the lower and middle classes was financed by bank loans; the primary concern of these classes today is how they will pay back their accumulated debts to the banks. On the one hand, millions of families now possess things they could only dream about before, such as houses and cars; on the other hand, due to their huge debts to the banks, they have become guarantors for the perpetuation of the current political and financial system. Under the AKP government, a new kind of citizenry has been created, one which has increased its levels of consumption while becoming dependent on bank loans; in return, it unquestioningly accepts the life and working conditions imposed by the current system. For these citizens, increasing interest rates due to potential instability would mean the end of consumption and higher levels of debt to the banks. The argument that Prime Minister Erdoğan constantly employed during the Gezi protests – that the “interest lobby” was behind the protests – was thus striking. He defined this lobby as murky groups who stood to gain enormously from increased interest rates in Turkey. So far, Erdoğan has been successful at consolidating the support of the electorate for his party, portraying his opponents as a threat to the lower and middle classes’ welfare and their ability to repay their debts. In this context, all those who criticize the government have been accused by the AKP of seeking to destabilize Turkey’s economy: those who oppose turning city parks into shopping malls, those who speak out on the lack of inspection and other work safety problems following the 301 deaths in Soma, those who demand a serious investigation into allegations of corruption and bribery, and those who protest against hydroelectric and nuclear power plants, which are extremely harmful to the environment. In his public speeches – which are broadcast live by several TV channels and reach large numbers of people – the prime minister has constantly stressed the importance of stability, defining all of his party’s opponents as threatening groups trying to undermine Turkey’s economic boom. The high percentage of the vote which he has received at the ballot box so far has demonstrated the success of Erdoğan’s strategy in terms of winning over the masses.
During the Özal era in the 1980s, neoliberal policies based on privatization, marketization, and de-unionization began to be implemented in Turkey. Public enterprises were closed down as a result of privatization, while foreign investment was promoted, along with a lifting of state subsidies on agriculture and a freeing-up of foreign trade. However, until the AKP came to the power in the 2000s, this process was only able to continue in fits and starts. In particular, the Kemalist bureaucracy which maintained a powerful influence over the judiciary and military was sometimes opposed to the implementation of neoliberal policies, which were claimed to be against the principles of nationalism and statism. The 2001 crisis – as one of the major economic crises in the history of the Turkish Republic – not only eradicated opposition to neoliberal policies, but also led to the disappearance of the centre-right political parties that were blamed for the crisis. It was under these circumstances that the AKP won the elections; since 2002, it has privatized almost all public enterprises and supported subcontracting and de-unionization. Green spaces and historical sites have been plundered as a result of urban transformation and the boom in construction sector, while the mining, construction, and energy sectors have been given free rein to despoil Turkey’s natural resources, in a manner befitting the “K” in the AKP’s name (standing for kalkınma or development). In the post-2002 era, the Secularism/Islamism debate has been the main obstacle to criticizing neoliberal policies. The criticisms of the AKP made by the CHP (the main opposition party) have only focused on the issue of secularism. As a result, Turkey’s neoliberal transformation – which has gone unchallenged – is now complete. As mentioned above, improvements in the welfare of the lower and middle classes, which depended on bank loans, have played a significant role in maintaining their support for the AKP.
Slavoj Žižek’s argument that the marriage between capitalism and democracy ended during the 2000s – and that capitalism functions much more efficiently under Asian-style authoritarian regimes than in Western democracies – is useful in evaluating the developments that have recently been taking place in Turkey. On the one hand, the AKP has created its own enterprises, media, civil society, and elites; on the other hand, existing financial and industrial enterprises have profited from the increase in consumption due to large numbers of people taking out bank loans. Pro-government companies share the income doled out by the government, while the media under their control follows a policy of disseminating information that will ensure the smooth functioning of this system, rather than question it. Elites promoted due to their loyalty to the AKP rather than on their merits – along with the civil society organizations they control – serve to legitimize the political and financial policies implemented by the ruling party. A power structure based on consumption and consumer debt has been able to win three successive elections with an increased number of votes each time, something unprecedented in Turkish politics. In the process, everyone speaking out against the government and voicing concerns about allegations of corruption has been branded as a “traitor” attempting to stop Turkey’s rise.
Thus, returning to Žižek’s argument, the question of how successful the marriage between capitalism and an authoritarian political regime has been – or how long this system can continue – is being answered right before our eyes here in Turkey. A political/economic system currently prevails in Turkey which would be unthinkable in Western countries, where one could hardly imagine converting New York’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park into shopping malls, or shrugging at a coal mine disaster in which hundreds of people have died. Thus, the gap between Turkey and the Western democracies has widened. However, the ruling elites in Turkey cannot sustain themselves through natural resource-based profiteering, as in Russia; nor do they have the capacity to compete with rivals through a cheap labor force within a closed political system, as in China.
The economic boom that we have experienced over the past 12 years has been possible due to several factors. First, there has been an increase in welfare and consumption based on bank loans and debts. Second, cities, natural areas, and – as was seen in Soma – the labor force have been put in the hands of capital and industry, which are untrammeled by legal oversight. A system which seemed perfect on paper led to disaster in Soma; as we have explained, this system will determine Turkey’s financial and political future on a larger scale, as well. However, large numbers of people – from the highest levels of the ruling party to the poorest classes – insist on believing in this illusion, and will go on doing so until they awaken with a bang from their “Winter Sleep.” In recent years, Turkey has shown some signs of an awakening; however, in light of its growing authoritarianism, this awakening will no doubt be a difficult experience. Turkey’s “Winter Sleep” will end painfully, for – as was seen in Soma – the government does not hesitate to exploit religion in order to deflect criticism of itself (as when it referred to the workers who died as ‘martyrs,’ or called the Soma tragedy ‘destiny’). The rise in the living standards of the AKP’s lower and middle class supporters – being based on debt – has reached unsustainable levels, while the coalition of ruling elites which has reaped the fruits of this system is staying in power through the use of steadily increasing violence. When all of these things are taken into account, a crisis seems inevitable.
Dr. Behlül Özkan, Marmara University, İstanbul
Please cite this publication as follows:
Özkan B. (June, 2014), “Turkey: Towards the End of the “Kış Uykusu” (“Winter Sleep”)”, Vol. III, Issue 6, pp.13-20, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=6428)
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 Likewise, nearly all the coal miners who appeared on Uğur Dündar’s TV show Halk Arenası on May 15, 2014 explained that they have large debts to the banks.
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 According to the BDDK, while the volume of mortgage credit was 258 million lira in 2002, it exceeded 112 billion lira in April 2014.
 The Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK) declared in April 2014 that the number of subcontracted workers rose from 387 thousand to 1 million 687 thousand between 2002 and 2011. http://www.disk.org.tr/2014/04/disk-ar-1-mayista-katilmak-icin-15-neden/.
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