Istanbul municipal funds transferred to AKP-affiliated foundations under spotlight

Uncertainty remains about the results of Istanbul’s local elections last Sunday, in which opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu scored a victory by the first count. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has objected to the vote counts in many of the city’s districts, and with recounts still incomplete, İmamoğlu’s victory is far from a sure thing.

As the conflict over the polls continues, there is one topic that is increasingly coming under the spotlight: the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s (IBB) budget and the vast amounts it has transferred to charitable foundations.

The annual budget of the IBB for 2019 is 23.8 billion liras ($4.2 million). IBB Chairman Mevlüt Uysal announced that the equivalent of 3.2 billion lira ($569 million) of the budget would come from domestic and foreign loans and 15.5 billion lira ($ 2.76 billion) from the central government's budget.

The opposition argues that the IBB’s figures from the previous year revealed one reason the AKP does not wish to abandon its reign in Istanbul despite the defeat it suffered on March 31: the vast amount of money it can funnel to supporters through funding charitable foundations.

The council granted more than 10 buildings to educational foundation TÜRGEV, to add to its existing 62 dormitories and use free of charge. The total amount paid to the foundation by the IBB was 51,593,044 lira ($ 9.1 million). 

The links tying TÜRGEV to the AKP government are well known: it was founded in 1996 by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose daughter Esra Albayrak currently sits on its executive board.

A total of 74,276,471 lira ($13.2 million) was transferred to TÜGVA, another educational foundation. This time it is Erdoğan’s son, Bilal Erdoğan, who sits on the High Consultation Committee. A real estate property located in the Kariye neighbourhood of İstanbul’s Fatih district, adjacent to the historic city walls was granted to TÜGVA to use free of charge for 25 years.

Furthermore, 19 buildings were allocated to other AKP-linked Islamist foundations, with seven for the Ensar Foundation, four for the Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Foundation, one for the Asitane Culture Arts and Education Foundation and one for the İstanbul Daru'l Fünun Theology Foundation.

As well as being vehicles for government circles and their close allies to offer handouts, TÜRGEV and TÜGVA also actively implement the ruling party’s project to raise what Erdoğan calls a generation of pious youths.

So does the Ensar Foundation, a religious organisation that provides dorms and education for children. Ensar has continued to enjoy the support of the government despite being embroiled in a child abuse scandal affecting dozens of children.

One of the properties it has been granted over the last three years is an 18,000 square metre plot of land adjacent to the AKP’s Yenikapı meeting grounds. The IBB granted the land, which is valued at 371,600,000 lira ($66 million), to the Ensar Foundation following the signing of a joint protocol.

Another protocol saw a building erected on a 705 square metre plot of land given for free to the Ensar Foundation in Istanbul’s Ataşehir district.

The IBB also granted over 10 million lira to the ÖNDER İmam Hatip Schools Association and a building in the heart of Istanbul to the Önder Foundation. Both are known for close ties to the AKP government and are tasked with increasing enrolment in Turkey’s religious İmam Hatip high schools. 

Another of Bilal Eroğan’s projects, the archery training Okçular Foundation, received funding to the tune of 16,640,457 lira ($2.95 million). A 10,000 square metres of land adjacent to Istanbul’s Hünkar Pavilion was also granted to this foundation after the land was made public. Thirty-seven shanty homes were destroyed in the process.

The İlim Yayma Foundation, whose founders include Erdoğan and the AKP’s Numan Kurtulmuş, has been in the spotlight over numerous reports of corruption. The foundation was mentioned among organisations that were looking to take hold of 300 hectares of land in İstanbul’s Tuzla district. One familiar name in the foundation is Fatih Saraç, a journalist and close friend of Erdoğan, who was among the 41 people detained in the 2013 corruption scandal that hit high-ranking AKP officials.

The public resources transferred to the foundation from the İBB total 9,365,326 lira ($1.66 million).

Then there is the Aziz Mahmut Hüdayi Foundation, whose head, Ahmet Hamdi Topbaş, is the brother of former AKP mayor of Istanbul Kadir Topbaş.

The foundation has been granted the use of a plot of public land free of charge for 49 years to build a dormitory. Not only has the foundation also received over 16 million lira from the municipality, but it also turned up in the Panama Papers as an entity using offshore accounts to hold its money.

It is important to note that, while all of these funds and buildings are being donated to these foundations, the capacity of the state provider of student housing, KYK, in Istanbul is lower than 13,000, housed in just 20 dormitories. The number of students in Istanbul is 310,629, and there are a total of 349 dorms.

The university dormitories have always been a tool for Islamist movements in Turkey, which have used them to recruit new devotees. The AKP has been widely criticised for years for refusing to increase funding for state dormitories and instead funneling cash and handing over land to affiliated foundations like TÜRGEV and TÜGVA.

The ruling party’s generosity only stretches so far. Secularist foundations, including the Atatürkist Thought Association, Turkish Training Foundation and Association for the Support of Contemporary Living have all had applications for funding rejected without justification, Ahval has learned.

Tarık Balyalı, the main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) parliamentary spokesperson, discussed with Ahval the imbalance after the funding to foundations brought to the municipality’s budget.

“The municipality had 15 billion lira in its coffers. The 847 million that went to pro-government foundations made up 8 percent of that. When you think 2.5 billion lira is spent on the metro system, giving 847 million to foundations is completely wrong,” he said.

Moreover, he said, the vast majority of the funds was allocated to foundations with links to Erdoğan and other high-ranking AKP officials.