by Francesco Siccardi*
Turkiye’s upcoming elections have been labeled the world’s most important in 2023. The fate of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will signify either the acceleration of authoritarian backsliding or renewed democratic progress in the NATO member. But at home, Turkish citizens will have other things on their minds as they go to the polls. A series of anniversaries of painful turning points in Turkiye’s recent history will remind the electorate of the country’s economic and geopolitical dependencies and potentially shape public opinion.
Cutting across all these issues are concerns with energy and the environment. The connection between construction projects, disregarded environmental regulations, and corruption is crucial for understanding Turkiye’s descent into authoritarianism. It also helps explain the level of damage caused by the February 6 earthquake. Furthermore, the mishandling of the country’s resources has left Ankara reliant on Moscow for most of its energy needs and unprepared to decarbonize its economy alongside Europe.
All these moving parts come into play at the election and explain how Turkiye got to where it currently is—and where it is headed.
The weak foundations of Turkiye’s urbanization
The first round of the presidential election on May 14 will coincide with the 100-day mark since earthquakes shattered Turkiye’s southwestern provinces. The anniversary will allow Turkish citizens to take stock of the government’s emergency reaction and reflect on the root causes that made the earthquake’s death toll higher than it should have been.
In the twenty years since the first electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, Turkiye’s cities and society have radically changed. Successive AKP governments have embarked on a process of urban transformation and renewal to offer a modern way of life to the millions of rural migrants living at the margins of the country’s metropolitan areas. Turkiye’s public services and infrastructure were rapidly developed in this period. By supporting those who had moved to cities, the AKP has secured the loyalty of a core electoral constituency.
But this continuous push for urbanization has had two other significant effects. First, it has created the conditions for redistributing considerable wealth to a small, tightly knit network of supporters loyal to the ruling party who operated in the construction sector. Second, a series of infrastructure megaprojects and investments in coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric power have wrecked the environment and lowered construction standards across the country. Laws were changed and controls were reduced to speed up this transformation.
The government was aware of these dangers, but in the aftermath of the earthquake, it was quick to blame contractors and construction companies for the alleged breaches of safety codes that ultimately led to the widespread collapse of thousands of buildings. Yet alleged corruption made the tragedy worse. Where anti-seismic constructions norms were enforced, such as in the city of Erzin, the destruction and the number of victims were exponentially lower. The construction-corruption nexus that cemented the AKP’s grip on power for over two decades could cost Erdogan his reelection.
Protests for green spaces and good governance
The second round of the presidential election—should it be needed—would coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Gezi Park protest.
In May 2013, a handful of activists gathered in Istanbul to protest a plan to demolish a park and build a shopping mall. As the government started to evict protesters with force, the movement rapidly grew and spread across the country out of a concern for the ruling party’s authoritarian style, from the lack of citizen consultation when restructuring public spaces and allegations of widespread corruption in the construction sector to the general disregard for democratic rights and individual freedoms.
The Gezi Park protest was not the first time in Turkish history that green demonstrations provided a platform for demands of more inclusive and transparent governance. Over the years, green activism has remained one of the most fruitful parts of Turkish civil society, despite the restrictions imposed by the government. However, the scale of the Gezi Park protest was unprecedented—with an approximate 3 million protesters across Turkiye—and so was the government’s response. The repressive measures that followed included a wave of arrests of activists and journalists that marked an acceleration in the dismantling of Turkiye’s rule of law architecture.
Rights and freedoms became even more restricted after the AKP’s poor electoral results of 2015 and the failed coup of 2016: targets included independent media, civil society organizations, free thinkers, lawyers, and opposition politicians. The leaders of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish party that currently holds the third-largest number of seats in Turkiye’s parliament, were arrested in 2016 on alleged charges of terrorist propaganda. The party is now facing potential closure, which would effectively ban it from this year’s general election.
To prevent the party’s demise, HDP leaders have announced that their candidates for parliament will be running under the banner of a different party: the Green Left Party (YSP). The YSP is one of the few splinter groups within the Turkish left that has survived, despite the government’s repression of civic activism and the obstacles that the electoral law creates to avoid the emergence of smaller political formations. The fact that the little-known YSP might soon be instrumental in tilting the electoral scales in favor of the opposition is another symbolic reminder that good governance, transparency, and respect for the environment should be the foundation of any institutional reform going forward.
Pathways to a green, energy-independent future
Yet green politics are about much more than good government. In the electoral memorandum of the six opposition parties, climate change and the environment are featured but appear to be a second-order priority for Turkiye’s wannabe decisionmakers who (if elected) would be busy with a more general reorientation of the country’s domestic and foreign policies.
While the memorandum’s chapters on energy, mining, transport, trade, climate change, forests, and water management lay out the opposition’s vision for a greener Turkiye, a deeper overhaul of the country’s energy industries will be needed if Turkiye is to succeed in a decarbonized world. This will be crucial considering that Ankara’s main trading partner, the EU, is preparing to establish a carbon tax that will hit many of the goods that Turkiye sends to Europe.
Investing in green sources of energy, both for export and to sustain Turkiye’s future growth, must be a priority for any new Turkish government. Yet recent developments on the energy front remind us that, regardless of the results of the election, some structural constraints will remain. Dependence on Russia is one of them.
At the end of April, Moscow is supposed to inaugurate Turkiye’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, on the Mediterranean coast. When it reaches full production in 2026, the power plant could account for 5 percent of Turkiye’s electric capacity. Russia has built, owns, and will operate the power plant, so it will remain a key player in Turkiye’s energy market—creating new interdependencies between Ankara and Moscow. In 2021, Russia provided almost half of Turkiye’s yearly natural gas supply. With Turkiye’s own Sakarya gas field just beginning production, Ankara will have more bargaining power when renewing its natural gas import contracts. But for now, negotiations to postpone Turkiye’s gas payments to Moscow are expected to provide a lifeline for Ankara’s finances.
In the long term, natural gas will not be the answer to Turkiye’s energy needs. A deeper industrial rethink and investments on green energy sources could give Turkiye the regional power role it has been chasing for so many years.
Green issues may not be in the headlines as Turkish citizens cast their votes. But the painful memory of the February earthquake and of the 2013 protests, and the connection between the environment, energy, and politics, might begin to solidify. The tens of thousands killed in the earthquakes and the thousands of political prisoners currently in Turkish custody are a stark reminder that good governance and inclusive, far-sighted green policies always go hand in hand. They will impact not only Turkiye’s future governance architecture but also the country’s system of international alliances going forward.
*senior program manager and senior research analyst at Carnegie Europe
**first published in: Carnegieeurope.eu