Erdogan’s economic policies show growing disconnect from working class

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aims for social justice by distributing the loot to his favorite powerful elites at the expense of hardworking blue- and white-collar professionals.

al-monitor Construction laborers work on the top of a new mosque at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, Jan. 14, 2019. Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 29, 2020

During his visit to Malatya province Oct. 25, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stopped to chat with a group of school bus drivers. One among the crowd said, “We cannot take bread home to our families.” Erdogan replied, “I find this statement exaggerated.” While he handed out tea packages to the crowd, he said, “Here, have a cup of joy.” Later, the bus drivers told the members of the press there that they are dedicated supporters of Turkey’s ruling party and that they have voted for Erdogan for the past 18 years. 

Bread is a basic staple food in Turkey. There are several sayings that are based on bread, such as “earning your bread” that means making a living. Therefore, not being able to “bring bread home” means not being able to support your family’s needs. Erdogan’s reaction to those who are in need shows once again how isolated he is from reality. 

The legend of outlaw Robin Hood symbolizes ends justify the means, which justifies stealing from the rich to deliver to the poor. Hence, we could refer to Erdogan’s economy as reverse Robin Hood. In the Turkish economy, the government is increasingly taking as much as it can from the masses in order to expand the resources of a few. 

A couple of recent events provide jarring evidence for the reverse Robin Hood economics. 

Despite all police and gendarmerie brutality, and arrests, some 3,000 miners have been trying to march into Ankara, demanding their severance pay as well as unpaid wages. Some of these payments are overdue as long as eight years, and so are their legal struggles. Even though most of the miners have won their cases in court, years have passed and they still have not received their money. The miners wanted to march to Ankara to seek help from Cabinet members and Erdogan. It is not the courts, but the “palace” that can convince their bosses of big mining companies, several miners told Al-Monitor. Courts’ verdicts can no longer be enforced in Turkey if they do not align with the political will. 

If one group of professionals should be pampered in coronavirus times it is the health-care workers. Not in Turkey. In several cases they have become victims of cruel and unusual treatment while working overtime. For example, several doctors who fell ill themselves with COVID-19 have faced salary cuts for missing work or becoming a patient at an intensive care unit in one of the notorious “city hospitals” where a private company runs the hospital like a firm with guaranteed levels of profit for the government. 

As puzzling as it sounds, the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) mega city hospital model offers guarantees to the company that people will get sick. Plus, the state pays rent to the companies who built these hospitals. The burden of the city hospitals on the government has grown exponentially, reaching 27.8% of the Health Ministry’s proposed budget for 2020. In May, another city hospital opened in the Istanbul neighborhood of Basaksehir. At the end of September, doctors of this hospital started a protest because they have not been receiving their full salaries for months. They were told it was because the hospital was not reaching its planned profit levels, which health-care workers have to pay for.

In addition, on Oct. 27, the Health Ministry announced that resignation letters from hospital workers would not be accepted. The ministry also suspended their annual holiday and unpaid leave requests. Basically, health-care workers are not allowed to take a day off or quit their jobs. 

These are just two recent examples, but they show both blue- and white-collar workers in Turkey are systematically and arbitrarily abused by the government. Now where does the money go? Here are some examples of how clientelism 2.1 works in Turkey. 

Based on records of the country's top public auditor, main opposition lawmaker Ali Fazil Kasap asked the government who the 442,309 people were who received monthly disability payments in 2018-19. The total sum of this illicitly distributed government funds was 6.9 billion Turkish liras ($829 million). However, conversation becomes challenging as the Turkish lira is too volatile. Since Erdogan’s son-in-law became the first minister of economy and treasury of the presidential system, the US dollar gained 83% value over the lira. That was July 2018 when one dollar was 4,35 Turkish liras, on Oct. 28, 2020, one dollar is worth 8,28 liras. 

As the economy shrinks and inflation expands with the challenges of a global pandemic, the good news is that the new budget included an 8.8% increase of Erdogan’s salary. Yet even with this raise Erdogan’s salary is a mere 88,000 liras ($10,500), which is lower than what some senior Turkish bureaucrats make abroad. Opposition lawmaker Deniz Yavuzyilmaz brought documents that some of these senior personnel received 13,500 euros ($15,700) per month in 2017. This equals a total of 55 workers’ salaries in Turkey. These government employees also receive subsidies for their rents, government-issued credit cards and regular bonus pay. When Yavuzyilmaz asked the government for detailed documentation of the salaries, he was informed that in order to respect the privacy of these people their salaries would be kept secret. Yavuzyilmaz questioned why state-funded salaries cannot be transparent, and noted that he could not even verify if these senior officials really work abroad. 

These are just a few examples to provide a snapshot of a deep-rooted intricate clientelist system that has been updated multiple times over the last decade. Money, and even property and land, is arbitrarily taken away from hardworking people to be distributed to AKP supporters. Arbitrary is legal in Turkey. 

Courts can decide to confiscate your property, as they did to award-winning journalist Can Dundar. Government’s crony firms can expand their mining activities illicitly destroying ecosystems of several villages nearby, despite protesting locals

Five firms, whose names were unknown before 2009, now dominate the Turkish economy. These firms have no international or private sector portfolios, and their wealth depends on lucrative state tenders for mega projects. The system works smoothly as each time only a small subsection of society loses their income, while the AKP’s cronies are handed benefits according to their layer of value to the government’s survival. Those who question this system are promptly prosecuted. Clientelism 2.1 is so proficient that the legal fees for dissidents' prosecution also contributes to the AKP’s coffins.

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