Turkey: housing and democracy

May 9, 2007 | Affordability, Politics, Turkey, World news

 [Expanding from my previous series on Turkey: Parts 1, 2, 3,  4, and 5.]


With the political crisis in Turkey continuing to defuse, in a satisfyingly parliamentarian fashion, what does the future hold?  I think that the country’s future path to democracy leads through housing affordability and extending the benefits of a successful economy to those who currently work and live on its fringes, because, as the Washington Post reports, that is the dominant issue facing many of the ruling party’s supporters:


ISTANBUL, May 3 — A few minutes’ drive from the Bosporus, beyond the majestic skyline that evokes Istanbul‘s imperial past, the roads narrow, lined by low-slung buildings of concrete and cinder block. Corrugated iron, occasionally painted, replaces the roofs of stately red tiles. The neighborhood is Umraniye, a telling locale in Turkey‘s struggle over power and identity.



A typical gecekondu neighborhood


Umraniye is known as a gecekondu, literally “built in the night,” recalling an Ottoman law that said no one could tear down a house begun at night and finished by dawn. Like the other poor, shoddily built settlements that swathe Istanbul, Ankara and other cities, Umraniye is part of the constituency courted by the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose populist, religiously resonant politics appeal to the millions of migrants who have flocked to cities prospering in Turkey’s economic boom.


Cities are the world’s future, and therefore the host of the world’s future leaders. Improving Turkey’s cities means improving the gecekondu.


1.         The political compromise emerges.  Despite all the heated rhetoric, as reported by CNN on Sunday, the mechanisms of Turkish government are operating and being respected:


Gul drops Turkey presidential bid


ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s foreign minister withdrew his candidacy for presidential elections after Parliament failed to reach a quorum Sunday needed to elect a new president, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.




Like Mr. Gul, every Turkish politician lives in Ataturk’s shadow


Parliament was short of the 367 legislators needed to proceed with the vote after holding two separate roll-calls, Speaker Bulent Arinc said.


Legislators from the secular party — which boycotted the first-round of voting — kept away from the vote again Sunday.


Gul said before the vote that he would withdraw his candidacy if he failed to get elected Sunday.


Mr. Gul made a pledge, and adhered to his pledge.  How refreshing in a politician.



He did what he said?  I need a drink!


As I wrote last week:


As we have seen during this eventful week, the military’s growl had the effect of raising national awareness of the potential stakes.  The financial markets wobbled but did not panic.    And the Constitutional Court’s ruling has the effect of enshrining a filibuster-like veto over one party capturing both legislative and executive branches.


Checks and balances are an essential of democratic government.  Turkey is developing them.



I’m getting the hang of the political balancing act!


As I wrote at the end of last week’s series of posts:


Constitutions are not made fully formed; even ours, the closest thing to a purely written Constitution, has been multiply amended and endlessly interpreted.  Rather, I think we should see Turkey’s eventful week as part of an emergent constitution much more like the English constitution, which evolved over centuries and in which precedent, tradition, and change all somehow were collectively understood and collectively managed.


An effective, working polity is not an Aristotelian crystalline sphere, formed perfectly and never changing.  Instead it is much more like a stone wall, assembled piece by piece, or a tapestry woven of many strands and only gradually revealing its meaning.



L’etat, c’est moi, n’est-ce pas?


2.         The civilizing influence of responsibility, and the importance of political delivery.  Istanbul, like so many emerging-world cities (like Cairo, Johannesburg, Nairobi, or Panama City Panama, to name four I’ve seen personally), is a study in contrasts, a nucleus of sophisticated, rich, cosmopolitan, successful people, business, institutions and capital markets. 



Expanding Aswan, Egypt


Every one of these countries has an educated elite class that is doing very well, and in the main trying their level best to improve their country, of which they are fiercely and understandably proud.


Yet within a biscuit toss of these gleaming high-rises, is a teeming world of squalor, informal employment, poverty, malnutrition, ill health and questionable sanitation, surrounding the shining city like detritus thrown from Gormenghast’s battlements:


GORMENGHAST, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its Outer Walls.  They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbor until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the Great Walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. 



Istanbul, high-rises and gecekondu side by side


These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them.  Over their irregular roofs would fall, throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints.  This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.  At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.



The great castle at Gormenghast


Very little communication passed between the denizens of these outer quarters and those who lived within the Walls save when, on the first June morning of each year, the entire population of the Clay Dwellings had sanction to enter the Grounds in order to display the wooden carvings on which they had been working during the year.


Saving this exception of the day of carvings, and the latitude permitted to the most peerless, there was no other opportunity for those who lived within the walls to know of these ‘outer’ folk, nor in fact were they of interest to the ‘inner’ world, being submerged within the shadow of the Great Walls.


They were all-but-forgotten people: the breed that was remembered with a start, or with the unreality of a recrudescent dream. 

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake, 1946, pages 1-3.



One of the greatest novels ever written in English


Lest you think that the poesy over-dramatizes the reality, listen to the more sober Economist‘s take on last week’s events:


The deeper malaise felt by these urban secular “white Turks” is really rooted in the millions-strong migration from rural Anatolia to the big cities in past decades.  Assertively pious and aggressively entrepreneurial, this new class, championed by Mr Erdogan, has been steadily chipping away at the economic and political power of the secular elite.  “The white Turks see women with headscarves walking dogs [and] jogging in their neighbourhoods and it drives them mad,” says Baskin Oran, a liberal academic in Ankara. That shock may fade; in time it will become more difficult for the generals to turn secular hostility to Anatolian carpetbaggers into paranoia about creeping Islam, he reckons.


Yet the envy flows much more powerfully the other direction, for it is the new city-dwellers whose votes sustain Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gul and their whole party.  Claire Berlinski’s insightful Washington Post article is spot-on:


This is not to diminish their concerns about the AKP, whose origins in radical Islam are not a matter of dispute.  […] But the AKP says it has outgrown these sentiments and is now fully committed to democracy and a looser version of secularism. It swears it does not seek to impose a fundamentalist tyranny.


I would not have believed them before. But I have lived here for the past two years.  […] The government has confined its enthusiasm for Islamic law to the most modest of sops to its Islamic base; its most egregious offense has been a desultory attempt to criminalize adultery that was quickly abandoned.


Meanwhile, Istanbul has become visibly more prosperous.  […] New construction is everywhere. Roads have been repaired. Decaying neighborhoods have been gentrified.


Democracy civilizes not just its citizens but also its government.  To stay in power, the AKP must simultaneously reassure the business elite — which means protecting markets and capital — and also reward its political base of the urbanizing poor. 


Gecekondu 5

Where the AKP’s votes come from


What public intervention can possibly do as much for those poor as improving both the durability and the economic value of their gecekondu housing?


Any party can win an election with promises that are purest political vaporware.  Winning a second election can sometimes also be accomplished through vaporware, by claiming that improvements are ‘just around the corner.’  But a party with serious pretensions of incumbency must deliver by the third election, or be turfed out in favor of the new lot of scoundrels.



“What I tell you three times is true.”


In short, the AKP is very rapidly approaching put-up-or-shut-up time — and housing must be part of its agenda.


3.         The civilizing influence of money, and foreign investment.  Beyond housing, capital and real estate will play a role at another end of the spectrum: the affluent and mobile.  Back to Ms. Berlinski:


The AKP has thrown Turkey open to foreign investment. Last year almost $20 billion rolled in, twice the amount of the previous year. It has deregulated the economy; since the AKP took power, it has grown by a third. It has tamed inflation, stabilized the currency and presided over a jump in per-capita income from $2,598 in 2002 to $5,477 today. The state sector, controlled by the secular bureaucracy, has been reduced. Margaret Thatcher would not have disapproved.

The AKP was in fact elected in large part because previous secular governments had for so long, and so badly, mismanaged the economy — before the last election, a huge banking scandal wiped out Turkish savings and sparked a complete economic collapse.


Those dissatisfied with the incumbent party often forget that the choice is not between the incumbents and their Platonic ideal antithesis.  The AKP may owe its current position less to its own merits and more to the failures of its opposition, but that too cannot last forever.


When currency is fragile, investors often fly to durable assets, and none is more durable than quality property.  Real estate is a great source of inward investment … if the investment climate remains gentle and sunny, as highlighted in an unapologetically boosterish article in Turkish Weekly, bringing in ‘settled foreigners:’



Bodrum’s beach, any day of the year


According to official figures from the General Directorate of Security (EGM), as of March 1 this year, 202,085 people in total have obtained residency permits.  Yet both the head of USAK, associate Professor Sedat Laciner, and Bahar believe that the number is much higher, saying there is no healthy data in this field. In recent years the population of settled foreigners from Europe, especially from Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Ireland, has increased and the great majority have become residents on the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. 
“For instance, while the number of British settlers in Turkey is around 8,000 according to EGM figures, what we estimate looking at the inflow and outflow of pensions in British is that this number is actually over 38,000,” Laciner said, emphasizing that he reckoned the total number of settled foreigners currently living in Turkey was definitely above 300,000. “But I can’t yet say how much above, it may even be half a million.”


Like Florida’s snowbirds, most retirees migrate north to south, and some never return, a diaspora that is tacitly encouraged by the host country, for its own pragmatic reasons:
This movement, which is sometimes called the phenomenon of “international residential tourism,” has also been encouraged by some European governments, particularly for retired people since the cost for those governments of having retired people abroad is less than keeping them at home, therefore the number has been constantly increasing.


The newcomers will come only to a place they regard as stable:


The poll also shows that … more than 80% say that they feel safer here.



I never really felt quite safe at home with these guys around


With their money come jobs:
Looking at the other side of the coin, certain municipalities in resort towns where the population of settled foreigners is high — i.e. Alanya, Fethiye and Didim — have implemented new services particularly for those people. Making municipality announcements in German or English and invoicing electricity and water bills in English are well known examples. Some municipalities have established “foreigner desks” at which officials who know foreign languages work.


4.         Conclusion: democracy is not an event but a process.  Despite all the bluster, if we observe the events, we see an ill-considered nomination that triggered:


·         A massive outpouring of opposition — the million-plus demonstrations.

·         Some political hardball — the opposition boycott.

·         A judicial adjudication — by all accounts, according to Turkish law and accepted as such by all parties.

·         A stand-down — Mr. Gul’s withdrawal of his candidacy.


Throughout the whole sequence, all parties were at pains to reassure the outside world that Turkey was a stable and safe place to come, to visit, and to invest in.  Back to Ms. Berlinski:


Lest anyone think I’m pessimistic about Turkey’s future, I’m not. The AKP will probably continue to do a fine, moderate job, particularly because it knows that the military is all too eager to fire up the tanks. Turkey will continue to function reasonably well, compared with other Muslim countries. Istanbul will still be a glorious place to live. Most Turks are either moderate Muslims or moderate authoritarians; true extremists on both sides are in the minority, and when the military takes power, it has always given it back after a time.


But don’t make the mistake of thinking that “secular” here means “liberal, democratic and friendly to the West.” That, it decidedly does not.


It needn’t be.  Paraphrasing Anna Karenina by way of Tip O’Neill, every country’s politics is unique to that country. 



And Tip’s was local to Boston


Yet there is one takeaway for the AKP — tackle the housing problem, in a substantive way, lest your voter base become disenchanted with the AKP, with democracy, and with liberalism itself.