As Mevlüt Özil paused to light a cigarette before answering my final question, his office was plunged into darkness. Not only had the fluorescent light above his desk stopped flickering, but the street below us was now an inky abyss. The city of Isparta had gone black, silent, as the electrical grid shuddered and gave out. The former teacher turned NGO president laughed:
“Well, there you go, the power’s out again.”
This was a full two weeks after a historic snowstorm had blanketed this small Turkish city, collapsing roofs and coating electrical lines in ice and snow so thick they snapped. I was there to talk about the power outage that had been plaguing parts of the region for up to ten days, leaving residents without heat or water in the extreme winter. In the cold and dark of his office, Özil turned to me, shining a cell phone torch toward his face: “Seems they still haven’t fixed it,” he said.
Isparta is a mountainous city, just an hour and a half from the beaches of Antalya on the Mediterranean coast. Buffeted by opposition-led municipalities on all sides, it is a stronghold for the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a region that otherwise generally votes against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP-led government. In local elections in 2019, it voted 38 percent for the AKP and 31 percent for the ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP), today an AKP ally.
One of the AKP’s signature projects has been the privatization of public services, with Isparta’s utilities sold off to private, government-linked holding companies in the name of efficiency. However, February’s blizzard and the government’s failure to respond demonstrate how selling off services has degraded even basic infrastructure.
When the Wires Snap
The snowstorm began early in the morning of February 3. According to locals, it started coming down quickly. The city gets some snow every year due to its elevated position, but this was different: it hadn’t seen a snowstorm like this since 2003.
It continued to snow throughout the morning and into the afternoon. The power stayed on, but the snow blanketed the city, thick and sticky. The roads leading through the mountains into Isparta were closed, leaving residents unable to get in and out.
Suddenly, around 4 PM, the power went out. Residents, accustomed to the shortcomings of the city’s aging infrastructure, thought it would come back on after a few hours. But when night fell it was still out.
Here as across Turkey, most homes in urban areas rely on electrical water heaters called kombis. The power outage meant that these kombis didn’t work. Electrical water pumps, critical to farming infrastructure in the outer reaches of Isparta, also went out. In the middle of a snowstorm, in record-low temperatures, residents were left with no heating, no hot water, and, in some cases, no water at all.
The morning light of February 4 revealed just how much damage had been done. During the storm, the snow had blanketed electric poles that dated from the 1980s, rendering them unable to transmit electricity between the three wires that ran across their tops. In other places, ice coated old, worn-out wires, and they simply snapped. Other power lines were caked in ice and snow so thick that they caused rusted, old metal electric poles to crumple.
Those who had coal-burning stoves were lucky. As the outage persisted into its second, and then third, day, they could heat their homes with wood and paper. But those wholly reliant on electricity weren’t so lucky. Residents like Özil, huddled in blankets, watched water leak out of the bottom of their refrigerators as food rotted.
In some outlying villages, it took as long as ten days to get the electricity back on. In Yalvaç, a small town a little over ninety minutes from the city center, an elderly man named Ramazan Namli froze to death in his home. He had no heating and lived alone, far from relatives. His cause of death was officially registered as hypothermic shock; the ruling AKP denied his death was related to the storm and pro-government media insisted he died of a heart attack.
Elsewhere, reports of young mothers boiling water to keep their babies and children warm flooded the offices of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Iyi Party (Good Party) offices, representatives said. Patients reliant on oxygen machines were left desperate, as were farmers stranded in their fields, unable to bring their animals home from pasture. Iyi Party head Hasan Buyukcan said his phone rang nonstop with people asking for help. He suspects there were several deaths linked to the outage, especially among the elderly and the ill, but none were officially reported as resulting from the electrical outage.
The damage was extensive. The roofs of dozens of homes caved in from the weight of the snow, and felled trees and branches littered the streets. One of the city’s central markets — known as the Russian market — was crushed by the sixteen inches of snow that piled atop it. Had the snow fallen one day later, market day, there would have been hundreds of shoppers below doing their shopping when the structure collapsed.
As the fallout was tallied and outages persisted, opposition politicians and residents took to both the streets and social media to protest. They toured the ice-coated city with freezing residents, sharing videos of the damage.
One question resonated throughout Isparta as people struggled on. Where was the local government, and why weren’t things fixed yet?
Throughout the first day of snow, the local AKP-led government kept its silence. Four hours after the power went out, hours after roads were closed, the party convened an emergency roundtable to address the situation. They did not, however, invite local members of the main local opposition party, CHP, which decried the “politicized” response.
“They could have gathered different components of this city around this table,” commented local CHP leader Yalim Halici, “We could have expressed our opinions and thoughts. We would have stepped in where he needed us. We could have offered services from other CHP municipalities to our citizens in Isparta.”
However, Halici says the local government refused to acknowledge the scope of the crisis and attempted to suppress discussion of it. The government also did not vote to declare the region a disaster zone, which would have demanded more serious action.
In a video released on February 5, after the power had been out for nearly two days, Isparta’s AKP mayor, Şükrü Başdeğirmen, said that the snow should be taken as a blessing — bereket in Turkish. As the country suffers from drought, he said, this snow would help Isparta. A few days of struggle for a summer of plenty.
The fact is, repair of the electrical grid was out of the local government’s hands. In May 2013, Isparta inked a deal with Akdeniz Electric Distribution (AEDAS) and CK Akdeniz Electric to privatize the city’s electricity distribution system. At the time, the AKP-led local administration said that the deal would make the power supply more efficient and enable investment in infrastructure.
Both companies were established that same month — May 2013 — and each was owned by the Cengiz Holding Company and Kolin Construction Company conglomerate. Cengiz and Kolin are both closely linked to Erdoğan’s government — they are two of the “big five” holding companies that have overrun the Turkish economy in two decades of AKP rule.
Deals such as the one struck by CK Akdeniz, AEDAS, and the AKP-led local administration are called ihale in Turkish, or “tenders.” When Erdoğan and his party came to power in 2002, they struck a deal with the International Monetary Fund to privatize large swaths of the economy, allegedly to rescue Turkey from runaway inflation and financial crisis. The AKP touted privatization as a means of modernization and bringing success.
However, in the intervening two decades, this privatization of government contracts has become a key means of enriching individuals and companies close to Erdoğan and his inner circle. In addition to Kolin and Cengiz, Limak, Kalyon, and MNG are the holding companies that have received the most tenders. They are also all run by people linked to the ruling AKP-MHP alliance, making both these firms and those who run them immensely wealthy.
The CEO of Cengiz Holding, Mehmet Cengiz, is both close friends with Erdoğan and one of the richest men in Turkey, largely as a result of these tenders. According to Forbes, Cengiz was worth $550 million in 2021. However, the Pandora Papers revealed he has hidden the vast majority of his wealth in the British Virgin Islands. A World Bank report released last year showed that Cengiz Holding received over $42.1 billion in tenders between 2002 and 2020 under AKP rule.
Opposition figures have shown that many of these tenders are granted at rates far higher than projects’ real worth. However, as the catastrophe in Isparta shows, few of them produce the results they promise. According to Halici, the only thing built in the city since the AKP came to power was a new public hospital. “Other than that, they haven’t done anything,” he said. “In the year 2022, a city is experiencing this level of crisis and trauma.” He added that his five-year-old son now says “Oh no” when he sees snowfall.
Buyukcan refers to this as a “managerial disaster.” He says that despite the alleged investment by these well-paid private companies, the city failed to take precautions for the storm, even though a meteorological report predicted the snow days in advance. Just three days before the snow hit, the municipality signed a contract with another Cengiz-owned company, BEDA Enerji, to outsource “failure response” for Isparta’s electrical systems. The deal was worth nearly 9 million Turkish lira (roughly US$600,000). Despite this, the company failed to respond for days.
Mehmet Cengiz is on the management board of BEDA, and his daughter, Zeynep Cengiz Şekeralp, is one of the company’s partners.
The failure of such privatization is visible far beyond Isparta.
Tenders are at the core of AKP megaprojects, such as the new Istanbul airport. In 2013, the government granted the tender for the facility, worth $29 billion, to a conglomerate of the Cengiz, Kolin, Limak, Mapa, and Kalyon holding companies. Cengiz is one of the firms that has operating rights for the airport until 2043.
A heavy snowstorm earlier this month there, too, showed the failure of their supposed development work. When a blizzard hit Istanbul, flights were grounded for days, hundreds of passengers were trapped in the airport to the point of protest, and planes were frozen to the tarmac. The airport, like Isparta, lacked sufficient equipment and crews to clear the runway and get flights off the ground. Only when the snow melted could normal functioning slowly return.
The single highway to the airport, also built by a private contractor, was not cleared for days after the snowfall, stranding passengers at the airport.
This is not the only well-known example. After a 2018 train crash in the city of Corlu, in which twenty-eight people lost their lives, including several children, it was revealed that the section of track where the train crashed had not been subject to maintenance due to a lapse in the tender. So much for “efficiency.”
After the blizzard in Isparta, Serkan Tumay had to keep his barbershop in the city center closed for two days. The small road in front of his shop, where he dries his towels and drinks tea with his customers and friends, remained covered in ice for days. Tumay is from Diyarbakir, in the southeast of the country, and relocated with his family to Isparta when he was a young adult. Like many in the city — and in Turkey more broadly — his business was already suffering from electricity price hikes by the AKP-led government, record-high inflation, and increases in the cost of basic goods. When the blizzard hit, neither he nor his customers could get to his shop. Plus he had to care for his young son, whose school was closed for a week.
“Shopkeepers were in a very bad situation,” Tumay said. “These electricity and water cuts were very bad for us. We all felt the pain.”
When his store finally opened two days after the snowstorm, he said, there was a shift in customers’ attitudes. The men whose hair and beards he cuts come from across the political spectrum, but in those still icy days after the storm, when many in the outer parts of the city still lacked electricity, they had one thing in common: they were angry. Tumay said he heard new rhetoric from them — rhetoric that questioned and challenged the local government.
You can’t look at icy roads and fallen trees and a darkened city and believe the government is doing a good job, he said.
When the neighboring municipalities of Antalya and Burdur, held by the CHP opposition, offered to send help in the form of vehicles and generators, the offers were rejected. When the mayor of Burdur, Ali Orkun Ercengiz, called Mayor Başdeğirmen, he said the AKP politician told him the city was in no need of help and that roads had been cleared and electricity restored. This contradicted the situation on the ground.
The CHP mayor of Antalya, Muhittin Böcek, had a similar experience. When he called Başdeğirmen and asked if the city needed help, he says the AKP mayor simply said no. A food distribution truck he sent was returned, with the Isparta municipality saying it was not needed.
Halici insists that this partisan response will cost the AKP in elections slated for 2023. People see the inability of the party to execute basic functionings of government, he says, and disasters like this have exposed the extent to which infrastructure and services have been eroded by the AKP program of privatization. Combined with the effects of a historic economic crisis that has pushed many people in Turkey into poverty and hunger, the opposition thinks the disaster in Isparta will only hasten the fall of the ruling coalition. Put simply, Halici said, a party that can’t ensure its citizens have electricity can’t win.
“The AKP’s defeat began in Isparta,” he said. “The AKP’s departure from Turkey began here.”
More Crises to Come
I wondered as I walked the still icy tree-branch-strewn streets of the city if people were afraid such a disaster could happen again. Opposition leaders believe that if the current system of privatization and tenders is maintained, another disaster is inevitable.
To ensure that infrastructure is resilient to threats that will become ever more likely in the face of climate change, the head of Isparta’s electrical engineers’ union, Güner Merdan, told me investments need to be made. Electrical lines and poles that have stood since the 1980s need to be taken underground, and building standards need to be updated to reflect current climate conditions. Many of the buildings — like the market that collapsed — were built on standards developed thirty years ago, without modern technology and data collection, said Caner Ataseven, head of the city’s architecture union.
But these investments will be costly — and are likely unattractive to a government already struggling with a historic economic crisis. Inflation in Turkey — the increase in the cost of consumer goods from last year — is officially 54 percent, though experts believe real inflation to be far higher. The construction cost index, according to the Turkish statistical institute, is up 67.7 percent annually, which would hamper potential development projects. Government coffers are nearly empty, and the central bank has issued wide-scale currency sell-offs to bolster the lira.
The weeks since the disaster have certainly not shown a change in course from the ihale system. Just days after the snowstorm, on February 8, Cengiz Holding was granted a tender worth €1 million for a joint highway construction project in Romania, and dozens more have been issued for smaller construction and service-provision projects. There has also been little acknowledgment of the failure of CK Akdeniz and AEDAS in Isparta beyond a one-month delay in the payment of electrical bills. Many people still received sky-high bills worth hundreds of dollars — up significantly since electricity hikes at the beginning of the year — just days after their power came back on.
Both the CHP and Iyi Party have publicly decried the corruption of the tender system in Turkey, and say they will drastically cut back on government tenders to private companies should they win in elections planned for June 2023. They say they will diversify the recipients of tenders and reform the 21/b tender type, which has been widely used by the AKP. However, some on Turkey’s left question, given economic incentives, how far the opposition coalition will actually go to reform the tender system.
All of this seems, to the people of Isparta, to indicate the inevitability of more disasters to come, both in the city and throughout the country. A fresh snowstorm on March 2 confirmed this fear. When an estimated fifteen centimeters of snow fell on the city, electricity again went out. Some people lived without heat, water, or light for over a week for the second time in a month.
“This kind of crisis can occur anywhere in Turkey where necessary controls are not implemented and companies are not properly trained,” Iyi Party’s Buyukcan said. “If not in Isparta, it will happen somewhere else.”