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The patronage network behind Erdoğan’s bid for third decade in power

If Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emerges triumphant in Sunday’s run-off election in Turkey, he will owe his victory in part to the powerful patronage networks he has built across two decades of power.

Out of his Justice and Development party (AKP), formed in 2001, has emerged a sprawling system of influence, support and state largesse that many in the country have relied on for their living — and fear might end without Erdoğan in the presidency.

“A significant segment of voters . . . feel that they depend on the AKP staying in power to continue to receive benefits from the state,” said Murat Somer, a political-science professor at Istanbul’s Koç University. “People who are in precarious situations think their relationship with the state depends on good relations with the AKP. They’re dependent on the AKP.”

Erdoğan lent on his vast “grassroots” network to secure a first-round lead on May 14 and heads into Sunday’s run-off vote against his opposition rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as the strong favourite.

Yet critics insist the playing field has long been tilted in Erdoğan’s favour, with the 69-year old president deploying a range of state resources during the campaign, while government-affiliated media closely followed his and the AKP’s narrative.

Erdoğan’s government showered the country with pre-election handouts, including free gas, discounted electricity, and 10GB of free internet for students. Boosts to the minimum wage and civil servant wages in the lead-up to the vote may also have played in the president’s favour.

These giveaways were designed to offset a bleak economic picture for the country of 85mn people. Surging prices, and a lira that fell to a fresh low on Friday, are eroding the purchasing power of ordinary voters.

The powerful networks that he and his party have built extends into businesses. The manager of a Turkish industrial group based in an AKP stronghold said he would not take work from companies linked to Erdoğan’s government because of the strings that come attached to the contract.

“They’re not just thinking of the job, they’re thinking something different,” said the executive, who asked not to be named. He described a circular system where people paid for the privilege of working with a state-aligned company, and were expected to provide kickbacks in return.

Arda Can Kumbaracıbaşı, a politics professor at Bahçeşehir University who has studied the rise of the AKP, added, “the government is only providing bids and opportunities to groups that are close to them”.

For many in Turkey, the accomplishments of the state cannot be separated from Erdoğan himself. Kemal, a 37-year-old barber in Istanbul, said: “Life has improved dramatically over the past 20 years, and that’s down to Tayyip. Our country was a mess before he came. Now everyone enjoys far greater living standards.”

He continued: “Transportation across this country used to be a nightmare, and now we’ve an airport in every province. Who did this? Tayyip did . . . If anyone can fix this economy, it’s Tayyip.”

Erdoğan has consistently managed to retain support among his mainly conservative and pious base in part because many see their fate linked to his, but also through the sheer size of the Islamist-rooted AKP, which has offices in towns and cities across the country.

The AKP, which with its ultranationalist partner maintained its majority in parliament in the May 14 election, has more than 11mn members, according to data from Turkey’s Supreme Court. Kılıçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s party, which leads the country’s six-party opposition coalition, can muster only 1.4mn.

“The AKP had successfully built upon the electoral strongholds and grassroots organisation of parties that can be traced back to 1970s,” Kumbaracıbaşı said. “So patronage networks have definitely been helpful for the AKP maintaining its supporter base.”

He added that “many of the AKP members’ relatives also enjoyed high-ranking positions in administrations, non-governmental organisations, universities and municipalities”.

Harun Armağan, a member of the AKP’s central decision board, described the suggestion that party members reaped monetary or other benefits by backing the party as “opposition propaganda”.

But he agreed that the party’s sprawling scope was a pillar of its success. “We’re a grassroots movement. This is what we’ve been very good at and it makes us strong.”

Armağan said the reason was that the AKP, a powerful election machine that he described as Turkey’s biggest non-government organisation, used its large network to stay in constant contact with supporters and those who might back the party. “We always listen to people . . . [they] vote for you because we don’t forget them,” he said.

Somer at Koç University added that the patron-client relationship between Erdoğan and the Turkish voters had only strengthened over the years, adding that the actual and perceived benefits of backing the AKP extend to government jobs, social assistance for the elderly and poor, disaster relief and business permits.

Such a broad bottom-up effort goes some way to explaining why Erdoğan has a strong poll lead ahead of Sunday’s face-off with Kılıçdaroğlu.

“A significant segment of voters . . . feel they depend on the AKP staying in power to continue to receive the benefits they’re receiving from the state,” Somer said. The Turkish electorate, he added, “are led to feel like they don’t have an alternative”.

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul

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