Ankara’s bad habits

Ankara’s bad habits

The Wall Street Journal now has an online Turkish portal. It’s very useful. The other day, it carried a piece on the agenda of Turkey’s Cabinet. In 2012, a whopping 60 percent of the Cabinet’s decisions were about construction projects. They actually counted every decision of the body, which is headed by the prime minister himself. I find this rather telling of the Turkish way of doing things. Let me elaborate.

Construction projects are inherently local. You first need a piece of land to build something on. Most of the time, there are locals there who need to be consulted and manage the project. Yet, in Turkey’s case, all large-scale construction decisions are taken by the highest administrative body of the country, in Ankara. They know what’s best for you and they will come and build things where you live. No wonder the Gezi Park incident was sparked by a construction project. There is something wrong in Ankara’s way of doing things.

There always has been. Ankara’s micro management is a structural characteristic of the Turkish way of doing things. A simple comparison helps to illustrate this point: Both Turkey and Sweden are unitary states (meaning that they are not federations of self-governing states). While 85 percent of civil servants are employed by Ankara in Turkey, only 15 percent work for the central government in Sweden. Imagine that. Local administrations in Turkey only employ a meager 15 percent of civil servants in the country. They are weak. Turkey is a centralized unitary state where all decisions are taken in Ankara. Sweden is not.

But Ankara’s recent levels of control freakishness are high even by its own standards. According to the WSJ piece, only 9 percent of Cabinet decisions were about local construction projects in 2009. That increased to 17 percent in 2010 and 23 percent in 2011. In 2012 it was finally, 60 percent! That is high. So our highest administrative body started focusing on local construction projects in 2012. Where does that leave other important issues of state? The Arab Spring turns messy, no room on the agenda. The middle income trap is leading to sluggish productivity growth? No time to talk about it; let’s fiddle around with Istanbul’s public transportation system. The Kurdish reconciliation process, a new Constitution, public unrest. Sorry, no room on the agenda. Too many construction projects. God forbid they would be handled by municipalities. It’s no wonder that Turkey has not had any structural reforms since 2007. Except the smoking ban, of course.

In 2002, this same government first prepared a municipal reform package that gave powers to local administrations. It was vetoed by the then president of Turkey, Ahmet Necdet Sezer. A pity, if you ask me. In 2010, that same government decided to preside over all urban renewal construction projects across the country. They made the decision-making process more centralized than ever before.

There was always something wrong in Ankara’s way of doing things. Micro management is a Turkish trait, embedded strongly in our psyche. Recently Ankara’s bad habits have reached a new summit. This has to change, sooner or later.