AKP links to Turkey’s elite could drive away working-class base

On April 13 in Istanbul, an opulent wedding at a grand Ottoman-era palace overlooking the Bosporus brought together scions from two of Turkey’s most prominent pro-government business families.

Bride Yelda Demirören’s family owns the multi-billion-dollar Demirören Group, Turkey’s largest media empire, which owns five newspapers, two television channels and a news agency, as well as major assets in construction, mining and energy.

Groom Haluk Kalyoncu’s family runs Kalyon Group, a major conglomerate operating in construction, energy and infrastructure, which also owns two television channels and two dailies.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his wife Emine served as witnesses at the wedding, which was officiated by Istanbul mayor Mevlüt Uysal, from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Among the nearly 2,000 guests were the foreign minister, parliamentary speaker and the head of Turkey’s intelligence agency.

Traffic was closed near the venue, and when lawyer Sertuğ Sürenoğlu posed a question to the sizable security detail, they grabbed and beat him, according to his lawyers.

The assault, as well as the pomp of the ceremony, contrasted sharply with Turkey’s ongoing economic troubles. Many analysts and government critics expressed outrage on social media, seeing the wedding as symbolising the elite, loyal business class created by the AKP.

“It’s kind of the embodiment, the institutionalisation of those connections amongst the AKP’s clients,” said Şebnem Gümüşçü, a political scientist at Middlebury College who has studied the AKP and its business supporters.

The party’s success has long been due in large part to its strong support from conservative working-class voters, whose lives improved during the economic boom of the AKP’s first dozen years in power.

Despite the AKP’s political narrative of shared victimhood and marginalisation with its devout supporters, many of its politicians have grown exceedingly wealthy and live extravagant lifestyles, according to several reports, as the party has helped create a new elite called the Anatolian Tigers.

“We now have this huge upper class of AKP people. There’s this whole chain of people who are affiliated with the AKP, and they’re finding jobs, getting into the schools they want, and being appointed to important positions, all due to the AKP’s power,” said Halil Yenigün, a Turkish Islamic studies scholar at Stanford University. “I think there is a tension between their cultural identification on the one hand and their class differences, even conflict, on the other hand.”

The party has secured its hold over Turkey in part by bestowing supporters with massive public procurement contracts and state assets sold on favourable terms, while punishing those who refuse to support it with tax audits and debt collection.

The AKP government has seized hundreds of companies worth billions of dollars, including major media outlets, and thousands of pieces of real estate from political competitors (mostly from the friend-turned-foe Gülen movement) and sold them to allies at fire-sale prices.

In a paper Gümüşçü co-wrote in 2017, she found that the AKP had facilitated the transfer of $62 billion worth of assets in sectors such as mining, energy, construction, tourism and healthcare, mostly through privatisation and commodification of social services, and largely to its own cadres and supporters.

Esra Gürakar, an economist and author of Politics of Favoritism in Public Procurement in Turkey, told Ahval that 255 of Turkey’s top 1,000 firms are owned by AKP politicians or their relatives. Turkish politicians have always been involved in business, she said, but never to this extent.

Many of the government-friendly conglomerates were pressured by the government into acquiring minimally lucrative media assets, often with the help of loans from state banks. This eventually resulted in a mainstream media almost wholly controlled by the government.

In an audio recording leaked in 2014, President Erdoğan berates Erdoğan Demirören, head of the Demirören group, to the point of tears for a critical story in Demirören-owned newspaper Milliyet.

But the AKP’s vast network extends far beyond their wealthy backers, down to those with lower incomes. “There is this trickling down effect,” Gümüşçü said.

Large firms with government projects will contract much of the work to smaller firms. The wealth is also funnelled into the poor and working classes either directly via the AKP or through its many charities.

“Every Ramadan, every holiday, every school term, they collect all these donations from local businessmen and distribute those resources in cash donations to the urban poor. This is done either through the municipality or the local AKP branch. The AKP’s local people know a lot about which family needs support, who votes for them and who votes for other parties,” Gümüşçü said.

Gürakar points out that losing several large cities in the recent local elections hurt the AKP’s ability to distribute resources, because municipalities are among the largest contractors for state-owned enterprises. Istanbul and Ankara account for almost half of all procurements, which may be why the AKP seems unwilling to give up the former to opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu, who narrowly won the March 31 vote but now must run again in a controversial re-election on June 23.

Furthermore, Turkey has seen a major economic downturn. The lira lost 40 per cent of its value against the dollar (before partially recovering) and the economy, now in recession, shrunk 3 percent last year following a diplomatic crisis with the United States. Inflation remains at 20 percent, and the AKP’s patronage network is likely struggling to sustain itself.

“Public procurement is declining [due to] budget constraints. Public-private partnerships are being postponed or cancelled. Opportunities for easy access to credit are petering out,” Gürakar said.

Gümüşçü said the working class may be starting to abandon the AKP because the party has failed to address their concerns amid growing tensions between the haves and have-nots amongst traditional AKP backers.

“The gap between the AKP elite and urban poor is increasing rapidly and it’s becoming very visible,” she said.

Then again, Turkey’s economic troubles could increase dependency on government handouts.

“When you have a shrinking pie, getting one piece of that pie is more important than ever,” Gümüşçü added.

Struggling construction companies are also more dependent on the government for cheap credit and other state benefits. “They want to survive, and they will support the government no matter what,” Gümüşçü said.

Even if government largesse is limited, its ability to use the state to punish naysayers is not.

“If we call it a carrot and stick strategy, maybe the carrot won’t be that motivating but the stick will,” said Gürakar.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.