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Daron Acemoglu is a professor of economics at MIT and co-author (with Simon Johnson) of the forthcoming Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity. Cihat Tokgoz is a former senior investment banker, an author, and an analyst of Turkish economy and financial markets.

The devastating earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and northern Syria in February have exposed deep-rooted problems in the run-up to Turkey’s elections on May 14. The country needs more than a change of government; it needs a fundamental transformation of its politics and economy. That means confronting its hugely powerful construction lobby and attempting to rebuild the country’s flailing democracy.

Though the earthquakes were acts of nature, the devastation they caused was the result of corruption within the construction industry and beyond. It is worth recalling that when Turkey suffered a major earthquake in 1999 near the city of Izmit, the large death toll at the time (around 18,000) was rightly attributed to shoddy construction and poor urban planning. The government responded by adopting state-of-the-art building codes to prevent new construction in the highest-risk areas.

So why, then, did the latest earthquakes destroy more than 18,000 buildings and fatally damage another 280,000? The short answer is that the building codes were not followed. Many of the recently decimated buildings were erected after 1999, but they were still unsafe because municipal governments and inspectors had given developers a pass.

Corruption is just one facet of the rise of Turkey’s construction lobby over the last two decades. Construction companies are among the leading donors to all major political parties, and they maintain inappropriately close links with all municipal governments, regardless of which party is in control. While construction-industry corruption is a major problem in many other countries as well, it is particularly pernicious in Turkey. Not only is the industry disproportionately large relative to the economy, but it is exploiting democratic institutions that have been severely weakened after two decades of autocratic rule by Turkey’s strongman President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Erdogan government’s bizarre 2018 “building amnesty” policy illustrates the construction lobby’s power. The amnesty allowed owners to avoid having to demolish or retrofit buildings that were not up to code simply by paying an additional tax, even in the case of structures that had been erected along fault lines, wetlands, basins and other high-risk areas. In the 10 provinces that suffered the worst devastation in the recent earthquakes, a staggering 294,000 buildings had received amnesty. While there currently are no definitive data to assess the lethality of amnesty, it is safe to assume that many of these buildings were among those that collapsed and killed their inhabitants.

With such an astonishing death toll and hundreds of thousands left homeless, one might expect Turkish voters to turn out en masse against the government on May 14. But so far, at least, there is little evidence that the media and civil society are eager to hold politicians accountable. Unlike in 1999, when most media outlets described the damage from the earthquake as a failure of governance, the near-total consensus in Turkish media today is that it was an “act of God,” implying that Mr. Erdogan and his government are blameless.

This type of coverage is no surprise, given that Mr. Erdogan has gradually assumed almost direct control over all national media outlets. Open dissent has become increasingly dangerous: journalists are routinely jailed for critical reporting, and websites and social media platforms have been closed for challenging the government. The staggering level of media control has left opposition parties and politicians struggling to get their message out, especially when they try to highlight endemic corruption. But even if a coalition of opposition parties can win, replacing the government will not fix Turkey’s problems. The country’s institutions need to be rebuilt, and that process cannot be completed unless the construction lobby is cut down to size.

While the odds of achieving transformational change may appear low, Mr. Erdogan’s control over the media and state institutions does not guarantee his re-election. There is a palpable desire for change among the electorate – and one place to find it is in soccer stadiums. At recent matches for two of the country’s most widely followed teams, thousands of fans chanted, “Lies, cheating, it’s been 20 years, resign.” These views are not going away, and they could well be echoed widely at the ballot box.

Demands for political change can emerge from unexpected places, and when they do, they can offer hope to millions of others. That, more than a new government, is what true change requires. To rebuild Turkish democracy, Turks will need to remove Mr. Erdogan, confront the construction lobby, and then get to work restoring essential institutions – perhaps starting with the media.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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