Erdoğan’s Istanbul canal project could shape Turkey’s 2023 presidential election - analyst

The controversy around Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Istanbul canal project could be decisive in the country’s next presidential election in 2023, if Ekrem İmamoğlu, the opposition mayor of Turkey’s largest province, expands his support base by objecting to the artificial waterway, analyst Can Selçuki wrote in Foreign Policy.

İmamoğlu won local elections in Istanbul twice last year, as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appealed the results of the March polls in Turkey’s financial powerhouse and the country’s Supreme Election Council ordered a rerun in June.

His victory was a major blow for the AKP and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose ascent to power started when he was elected Istanbul’s mayor in 1994.

İmamoğlu, who can rival Erdoğan in 2023 presidential election, has led opposition to the president’s Kanal Istanbul project, which Erdoğan says will create an alternative to the Bosporus Straits and generate crucial economic and strategic gains. 

“The government is aiming to gather support strictly along political lines; amid partisan bickering over the project, İmamoğlu has chosen to rely mostly on technical and environmental counterarguments instead,” Selçuki said. 

“The mayor’s concerns include the loss of agricultural fields, possible negative outcomes in the case of the long-expected Istanbul earthquake, and destruction of the city’s flora. He will need to provide more detailed evidence in the future, but for now his arguments seem to be sticking,” he said. 

İmamoğlu has seized the opportunity of recent debates over the canal project to position himself against Erdoğan in a debate of national significance in order to strengthen his bid in the next presidential elections, Selçuki said. The mayor’s arguments, focusing on the economic and environmental repercussions of the project, resonate with the public, the analyst said. 

“After the repeat Istanbul municipal elections, which Erdoğan’s party lost twice, İmamoğlu is gearing up for a second win against Erdogan, this time on the national scene,” Selçuki said. “If İmamoğlu can manage to win the crowd in the debate over the canal project, it could deal a deadly blow to Erdogan in the run-up to 2023 presidential elections.”