The real reason behind Turkey’s skyrocketing welfare spending

By Mehmet Cetingulec for Al-Monitor

The number of people entitled to social welfare assistance has reached 15.5 million in Turkey, raising questions on what lies behind the government’s generosity

The Turkish government’s welfare spending has skyrocketed in recent years, contradicting its rhetoric that the nation is getting richer. Social benefits in Turkey, however, are no longer just a means to support the needy but also a major instrument to lure and control voters.

According to Family and Social Policies Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, the amount of welfare assistance to the poor reached 33.7 billion Turkish lira in 2016, up from 1.3 billion Turkish lira in 2002, the year the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power.

The staggering increase of 2,492% is unmatched in other realms, including the vast education and justice systems. The budget of the Education Ministry, for instance, stood at over 100 billion Turkish lira in 2016, up 900% from 10 billion Turkish lira in 2002. What can explain this record increase in welfare assistance?

To start with, the recipients tend to see the aid as the benevolence of the ruling party rather than an institutional support by the state. As such, social benefits have high potential of being transformed into votes. Having benefited from financial and material assistance for years, voters feel compelled to back the ruling party when they go to the polls, wary that a new party in power could disrupt the flow of aid.

The figures indicate that the number of recipients is also rising fast. While about 13 million people were entitled to welfare assistance in 2014, a comprehensive study by the Haberturk daily shows that the figure stood at 15.5 million in 2016, meaning that 2.5 million people were added to the list in only two years.

The funds spent on social welfare assistance over 14 years could have well been used for “productive” investments to help reduce unemployment in a country with a growing army of jobless. Instead, a fifth of the population has become reliant on aid in what can be described as an operation to make millions of stomachs dependent on the government.

Yet both sides are happy with this bond of dependence. Few recipients of aid seem to question why they remain jobless, why the government is not doing more to stamp out poverty or why their neediness is not receding over the years. Their first and foremost concern is the termination of aid if another party comes to power. This sense of apprehension among millions has become a major challenge for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). In the last general elections in 2015, for instance, the CHP not only vowed to sustain all payments if it came to power, but it also pledged to expand welfare assistance to another 5 million people.

In terms of the AKP narratives, the increased welfare spending contradicts the party’s claims of exceptional economic success. While adding millions of people to the aid roster each year, the AKP boasts of having bolstered the Turkish economy and more than tripled the income per capita.

During a parliamentary debate on the 2015 budget, for instance, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered this ambitious list of achievements: “We have boosted the Turkish economy’s size from $230 billion to $822 billion. We have expanded it 3½ times. When we came to power, the poverty line was $4.20 per day and 30% lived on less than $4.20 per day in Turkey. Today, this figure is only 2.7%. All others have moved above the poverty line into the middle-income group. We are among the countries where the middle class has strengthened the most. According to OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] figures, we are also the country with the fastest improvement in income distribution.”

In another example, AKP Deputy Chair Cevdet Yilmaz last year said, “When the [AKP] came to power, the income per capita was $3,500. We’ve more than tripled our gross domestic product and reached $9,000 in terms of income per capita.” In December 2016, this figure jumped to more than $11,000 overnight, as Ankara adopted a new method of calculating GDP.

So some inevitable questions pop up: Why is the government providing social support to 20% of the population if the GDP has tripled and only 2.7% remain below the poverty line? Who is getting those benefits that amount to 33 billion Turkish lira per year? Could it be that the government is handing out benefits to people who are not really in need? Are the benefits being traded for votes?

The questions can easily be multiplied, but finding the right answers is quite difficult. The figures on which the prosperity rhetoric rests and those that suggest a big increase in the number of the needy are both coming from the government but are still out of sync. There are two possible explanations here: Either Turkey never got richer in real terms and the citizens’ purchasing power today is actually worse than what it was in 2002, or the government did reduce poverty but is consciously pumping up social benefits with a view of translating them into votes.

Throughout Turkey’s Republican history, no other government seems to have relied on social benefits as its biggest trump card. The money spent in this realm is unprecedented, including both financial aid and items such as food, clothing and coal for heating. This has certainly translated into electoral gains, helping the AKP preserve its strength for more than 14 years. The April 16 constitutional referendum was no exception in this regard.

The opposition is at a loss and unable to come up with a counterstrategy other than pledging to give out more, which seems to have had little effect so far. In short, the government’s policy of vote hunting through welfare assistance remains without an alternative in Turkey. As a result, the votes of millions remain hostage to the aid they receive and continue to sway elections.