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Istanbul mayor cuts funding to pro-AKP groups as city spending comes under scrutiny

As evidence of controversial spending under AKP officials accumulates in southeast Turkey, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has cut funding for certain state-linked foundations.
Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu leaves a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RC1837A515F0

The misuse of state funds has been a central issue in Turkey since this spring’s municipal elections. Istanbul’s new opposition Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who won both that vote and a do-over election on June 23, is now following through on campaign promises to audit expenditures and cut wasteful spending.

On Aug. 27 Imamoglu, of the nation’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), announced his administration would cancel the transfer of 357 million liras (about $61.5 million) to a number of controversial state-linked foundations. Much of the funding was directed toward food expenditures and the construction of facilities for one of the foundations, expenses Imamoglu called “unbelievable” during a press conference.

"Where do you spend this nation's money?” Imamoglu asked on Tuesday. “A building was constructed to be handed over to a foundation. It costs 165 million liras. That building now belongs to Istanbulites."

The targeted foundations have benefited from state resources under the 25-year rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul. The move to cut their funding marks an apparent shift toward more transparent governance brought on by opposition gains across the country during the March elections.

Such reforms come as alleged evidence of wasteful spending accumulates in southeast Turkey, where several mayors with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been dismissed after promising to conduct similar investigations into municipal expenditures. As the spending practices of past and present AKP officials come under increased scrutiny, observers say the ruling party that once cast itself as incorruptible appears to be losing the moral high ground among Turkish voters.

“Having encountered numerous corruption allegations, the AKP no longer has a clean image and is having difficulty persuading even its own voters that it can provide clean governance,” Berk Esen, an assistant professor for international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, told Al-Monitor.

On Sunday, Deustche Welle reported a state-appointed trustee in Mardin had gifted high-ranking AKP officials 158,000 liras, or about $27,000, worth of silver jewelry last year. One of the reported recipients of the gifts, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, refuted the accusations, saying the jewelry was intended for a visiting delegation.

Yet voters are less likely to be convinced by such claims following the dismissal of recently-elected HDP mayors who had been revealing the lavish spending practices of AKP officials, which they claimed had left their municipalities with large debts.

Over the weekend, Erdogan said the dismissals were justified, alleging the HDP mayors were “misusing municipal facilities” to support the Kurdistan Workers Party, a militant group that has waged war against the Turkish state since the 1980s.

The renewed focus on state expenses comes as the Turkish economy continues to struggle with high inflation and consumers face rising prices for staple food products, tea and cigarettes. Against this backdrop, Esen said Imamoglu’s move to cut funding for state-linked foundations would be well received by Turkish voters.

“In an economic crisis, voters will overwhelmingly support this decision since the pro-AKP foundations are seen as corrupt, inefficient and partisan with little impact on citizens,” Esen told Al-Monitor. “It’s not clear what exactly these pro-AKP foundations do, given that they are not audited and their activities are not reported publicly.”

The organizations impacted by the cuts include the Turkey Youth and Education Service Foundation (TURGEV), the Turkish Youth Foundation (TUGVA), the Ensar Foundation, the Aziz Mahmut Hudayi Foundation, the Daru’l Funun Theology Foundation and the Hoca Ahmet Yesevi Foundation.

Some of the organizations’ functions have been criticized in the past, particularly TURGEV, which received $9 million in state funds last year and whose board currently includes Erdogan’s daughter, his communication director’s wife and a former AKP mayor. The Wall Street Journal reported the Istanbul city government paid $10 million to build a new headquarters for TUGVA, where Erdogan’s son serves on the high advisory board.

The revelations form a stark contrast with the AKP’s prior image. In 2002, the party came to power largely through an anti-corruption campaign to end the chronic cronyism of preceding political parties in the 1990s. The foundations were pivotal in building the AKP’s support network and implementing programs for its controversial “pious youth” initiatives.

Yet following a string of elections marked by irregularities and faced with an protracted recession, current perceptions of mismanagement under the AKP have caused strife within the party and among its supporters.

Esen said former AKP officials Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan will likely exploit discontent over state expenses as they form a new party that may draw voters away from Erdogan. He said the same was true for the CHP, which now controls most of Turkey’s largest cities and will aim to rebuild its brand on clean governance in preparation for future elections.

“The CHP's victory in major cities was, in my view, a very clear sign that the AKP has lost its touch with voters,” Esen told Al-Monitor. “Should CHP mayors such as Imamoglu and [Ankara Mayor Mansur] Yavas convey a clean image and challenge the AKP's patronage networks and corrupt deals, they may begin to draw support even from the voter base of the ruling party very quickly.”

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