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Authoritarian Infrastructure Complex: The Turkish Tale

By Alexander Sekhniashvili

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Across Eurasia, authoritarian leaders are seeking public support through the construction of massive infrastructure projects. The projects being undertaken by the leaders of China, Russia, and Turkey are intended to capture the public imagination and to evoke the grandeur of a bygone imperial era. An example of this is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative. This ambitious infrastructure project hearkens back to the days of the famous Silk Road and seeks to draw the nations of central Asia more closely together in economic cooperation. This has huge benefits for China because, on the one hand, the flow of investment plays a significant role in addressing Asia’s collective $26 trillion infrastructure burden through 2030. On the other, encouraging economic performance paves the way for domestic political benefits. It is ultimately here on the national level that one may gauge authoritarian preference for infrastructure as a political instrument. Looking to Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s domestic ambitions provide a stark example of this.

Erdoğan’s national projects have furthered a foundation of political patrimony achieved via urban development primarily in the country’s northwest, with megaprojects surpassing the conceptions of Ottoman sultans. By announcing Vision 2023 in 2011 to commemorate a hundred years of the modern Turkish Republic, Erdoğan is attempting to consolidate his authority by providing impressive physical symbols of progress, fitted within Turkey’s historical context. With the help of the onset of strong economic growth in the 2000s, buoyed by infrastructure investment, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has increased its popular support from 34 percent to 50 percent since coming to power in 2002.2 However, megaprojects often carry great risks, associated with their financial, environmental, and transparency aspects, potentially stretching the Turkish economy beyond its means. This, in turn, could sour the patrimonial relationship that helped expand AKP’s appeal.

The Gecekondu Experiments

Courting political support on a large scale by AKP and Erdoğan began by weaving a political patrimonial system derived by urban development from the late 1990s, among Istanbul and Ankara’s network of gecekondus (shanty, squatter homes, built without permission).3 Parties had in fact begun to attract votes in these settlements as far back as the 1960s, integrating such peripheral communities into centers,4 with the Justice Party (AP) headed by Süleyman Demirel enjoying decisive support in back-to-back elections in 1965 and 1969.5

It is clear that past political successes have emboldened the governing party to push the limits of imagination, utilizing development as a tool for popular support in Turkey.

Gecekondus became particularly pertinent in the contemporary context with Erdoğan’s rise in the mid-1990s. During this time, the Welfare Party, predecessor of the AKP, began to harness urban discontent into political support in the 1994 local elections and the 1995 parliamentary elections. Once he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, Erdoğan mobilized support among the dwellers of gecekondus by emphasizing his humble roots in the Kasımpaşa suburb. Subsequently, urban development and regeneration of Istanbul became a priority for him as prime minister in successive AKP governments after 2002. The Housing Development Administration (TOKI) was transformed into a powerful development entity from a once bank-type institution and directed to working toward a new a target of constructing 1 million housing units as part of Vision 2023. In addition to appeasing the lower segments of society, the party also attracted a wealthy entrepreneurial class with public-private partnerships (PPPs), attracting foreign investment with the construction industry in particular enjoying significant gains. Thus, AKP strengthened its ties to this crucial wing of the private sector in Turkey that currently employs 2.15 million people and accounts for 7.5 percent of economic activity,6 with spillover effects on the rest of the country.

Çılgın Projeler – “Crazy Projects”

Since 2002, AKP has overseen a phase of development during which the Turkish economy has tripled in size,7 capitalizing on gains afforded by infrastructure investment. Given the aforementioned political success with gecekondu settlements in Istanbul and Ankara, attention turned to major projects to capture the imagination of Turkish citizens on a wider scale. Many of its transportation projects fall in line with leading Oxford economic geographer Bent Flyvjberg’s seminal characterization of megaprojects8—carrying significant cost (over $1 billion), attracting significant public and political attention, with a substantial direct or indirect impact on communities, environment, or state budget.

Erdoğan’s embrace of what he has termed “crazy projects,” with a view toward the historically significant 2023 target, concentrates on monumental size and effective timing. In April 2011, months before the general election, Erdoğan announced the $20 billion Kanal Istanbul to rival the Panama and Suez canals,9 to ease the heavily congested Turkish Straits. This project would utilize a concept first proposed as far back as Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent in the mid-sixteenth century. Another recent project, the Marmaray Tunnel in 2013,10 was a Sultan Abdülmecid I era idea in the mid-nineteenth century that established the first standard gauge rail connection between Europe and Asia. Weeks before the 2014 presidential election,11 the AKP government inaugurated the Istanbul-Ankara High Speed Railway. Finally, August 2016 saw the opening of the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, named after Sultan Selim I, an early sixteenth-century ruler that expanded the Ottoman Empire into the Middle East and took over the Caliphate. The latter provides the finest example of historical symbolism conveyed through physical reminders of Erdoğan’s ambitions for his “New Turkey.”

Ayağını yorganına göre uzat - Stretch your feet as far as your quilt

Turkey has made undeniable strides toward addressing its portion of the $1 trillion global deficit in infrastructure investment,12 yet wide-scale construction of this nature places enormous risk on the economy. Following popular campaigns in urban regeneration, projects of this size bring with them long-term financial burdens that risk stirring discontent within the wider population. A common trait among megaprojects, construction phases have resulted in soaring costs thus incurring public losses. This was an important factor in prompting the government to transfer liquid public assets into a sovereign wealth fund under its control, notwithstanding Turkey’s current account deficit,13 with the goal of preserving financially risky megaprojects. Currency fluctuations alongside rising contingent liabilities due to a continued expansion of PPPs14 add pressure to the financial foundations of many projects. In addition, Treasury guarantees to subsidize revenue losses incurred by operators15 are based on projections of sustained 5 percent annual growth in Turkey, with any underperforming project bound to enlarge public deficits.

Lack of transparency and crony capitalism, in addition to environmental concerns, have publicly plagued several of these projects during the past five years. Members of Turkey’s largest construction companies close to the government have been investigated in the bidding process alongside questionable methods of obtaining credit.16 The projects also pose enormous environmental risks. The colossal scale of Kanal Istanbul and the Istanbul’s third airport, for example, threaten surrounding waters, along with forested and agricultural land.17 Despite environmental groups’ lawsuits, political ambitions have encouraged defiance of court orders over such concerns.

It is clear that past political successes have emboldened the governing party to push the limits of imagination, utilizing development as a tool for popular support in Turkey. Building upon the foundations of political patrimony with prior urban development, megaprojects have received considerable public attention and have been used effectively before elections for the past decade. However, the risks are evident in the construction phase and repayment, requiring serious consideration of the effect on the rest of the Turkish economy. While credit is due to the addressing of Turkey’s infrastructure deficit, there are very serious financial and environmental considerations. It remains to be seen whether projects of this magnitude will prove to be success stories or beyond Turkish capabilities.

Alexander Sekhniashvili was a research intern with the Reconnecting Asia Project at CSIS.


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