Since July 28, wildfires have ravaged many areas in Turkey, causing widespread damage along the southwestern coast. The worst in the country’s modern history, the fires so far have taken nine lives, destroyed more than 230,000 acres of forest land, caused massive air pollution and displaced thousands.
But the 200 or more wildfires throughout the country also triggered a major political crisis for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Why do many in Turkey hold the Erdogan regime accountable for this summer’s disaster?
Turkish citizens for the most part don’t blame Erdogan for the fires. Experts claim that this year’s Mediterranean wildfires, which have also hit areas of Greece, Italy, Spain and Lebanon, are a product of climate change. But Turks remain deeply frustrated with the government’s inability to contain the blaze — and the situation has inflamed long-simmering critiques of Erdogan’s regime.
What explains the government’s response?
The popular backlash centers on the Turkish government’s failure to mobilize firefighting resources. The fires started in southwest Turkey, where the mountainous terrain prohibited effective ground intervention. The response thus required aerial intervention, but the government had rental helicopters but no water-dropping planes in its inventory.
This was a puzzling development, since fires in the past had been successfully contained by the Turkish Aeronautical Association (THK), a nonprofit organization founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1925 to advance Turkey’s aviation sector. The Turkish government had historically relied on this association and its airplanes to fight fires.
Public scrutiny revealed that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry had blocked the THK from bidding on fire management tenders since 2019, by setting the criteria slightly above the capacity of THK planes. The government awarded the contract in 2021 to a company with three airplanes rented from Russia — THK reportedly had nine planes better suited to the terrain. That company’s bid was the highest of the submissions, and significantly higher than past government contracts with THK.
This move appears to be part of a broader effort by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to sideline the THK. In 2019, the government took control of the association, using its financial troubles as a pretext, and appointed a former AKP minister as a trustee. The new leadership sold several properties and planes owned by the THK and fired experienced pilots.
The trustees also appointed AKP members to THK’s local offices. But with the remaining THK planes left unused in a warehouse, the fires apparently hit just as the AKP dismantled one of the oldest institutions in the country with substantial capacity and experience in firefighting.
Erdogan’s party rewards personal connections
The apparent dismantling of the THK reflects broader regime dynamics in Turkey. Researchers point out that Erdogan’s regime is characterized by personalism, partisanship and cronyism. Associations, foundations, and trade unions — Turkey’s civil society sector — along with businesses with personal connections to Erdogan and political loyalty to the AKP receive government funds, privileges and incentives — while independent firms and other civil society organizations are systematically sidelined, penalized or taken over.
As our study on AKP-business relations shows, Erdogan’s party built a system of rewards and punishments by politicizing the bureaucracy. Through tax relief/audits, public tenders, appointed trustees and outright confiscation, the government rewards political loyalists while sanctioning critics. No sector is immune — Turkey’s media, civil society sector and businesses are all affected.
What happened to the THK is just one example of how Turkey’s ruling party supported pro-government organizations while containing independent organizations. Taming civil society organizations entailed strengthening pro-government associations with transfers of funds, tax exemptions, in-kind and in cash support, along with political access. The government controlled independent organizations through trustees, frequent audits or direct intervention in internal affairs. The AKP, since 2016, has shut down hundreds of associations and co-opted others working on a wide range of issues, fundamentally redesigning what associations can do in Turkey.
Erdogan’s personalistic rule is costly
Most of these decisions were taken by Erdogan, with the goal of prolonging his personalistic rule — with few limits on his power, and the ability to place friends and supporters in important positions, partisan resource distribution and sanctions help underpin his ruling coalition. That coalition, however, requires resources to keep paying off loyalists. Thus, the government has privatized natural resources and public goods, rewarding cronies with hydropower bids, mining privileges in forests, and construction permits in historic sites.
Cronyism and partisan distribution of resources under one-man rule have damaged Turkey’s natural resources — but also undermine the government’s crisis-management capacity, erode transparency, and hurt the public interest at the expense of the privileged few.
Turkey’s fires show these costs clearly. Coincidentally, on day one of the fires, a legislative bill published in the official Gazette allowed the president to open forests, historic sites and pastures — all under legal protection in the past — to investment without soliciting input on potential environmental impacts. The bill triggered fears that the AKP would turn destroyed forests into construction sites, instead of rehabilitating them.
On day two of the fires, the government housing administration, which is under the president’s control and a major center of crony ties, began contacting villagers with loan offers to replace their burned houses. The government refused to coordinate its efforts with local mayors from opposition parties and turned down assistance offers from other countries. Only after significant pressure over social media did the government ask for firefighting help from the European Union. Later, the Interior Ministry announced it would investigate social media accounts that solicited international help, for insulting the Turkish government.
Erdogan’s regime underdelivers
Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum shifted the country away from a parliamentary system and boosted the power of the presidency. Since his 2018 reelection Erdogan has ruled with virtually with no checks over his power. And despite his campaign promises for more efficient and effective governance and economic growth, the economy has slumped — per capita income has fallen as inflation has risen, while the Turkish lira has depreciated sharply.
The coronavirus pandemic has left Turkey with rising unemployment and increased poverty. The recent fires have now destroyed the livelihood of thousands in Turkey — and offer little evidence of the Erdogan administration’s commitment to effective governance.
Sebnem Gumuscu is an assistant professor of political science at Middlebury College. Her new book “Democracy or Authoritarianism: Islamist Governments in Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia” is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.