Istanbul launched Erdoğan’s political career, and could also end it

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first made his political mark as Istanbul mayor in the 1990s. Now, in the wake of last year’s electoral defeats for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the city’s new mayor and a huge infrastructure project could prove to be Erdoğan’s political undoing.

Erdoğan grew up in Istanbul and has long seen Turkey’s largest city and financial capital as the country’s crowning glory. He has approved $100 billion worth of megaprojects for the city, including the world’s largest airport, Turkey’s largest mosque, a multi-billion-dollar financial centre, a third bridge over the Bosporus, and a 45-km shipping canal linking the Black and Marmara Seas, running parallel to the straits that bisect the city.

This last proposal has gripped Istanbul of late, with Erdoğan vowing it will go forward, and the city’s opposition mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, putting his political reputation on the line by standing against it.

Istanbul is home to some 16 million people and contributes nearly a third of the country’s GDP. For years, its huge budget allowed the AKP to exercise patronage and subsidise groups and causes that helped shore up the Islamist party’s support base. But since İmamoğlu’s electoral victory in June, the new mayor has exposed mismanagement and corruption at the municipality under the AKP, such as the millions wasted on more than 1,200 unnecessary city vehicles and large sums funnelled to charities linked to the president.

Erdoğan argues the canal would relieve shipping traffic on the busy Bosporus and reduce the risk of accidents. He says the government will offer a tender for Kanal Istanbul in the coming weeks.

Critics point to a possible $20-billion price tag and significant and irreversible environmental damage to the Black and Marmara Seas and surrounding areas, undermining the already troubled fishing industry. Turkey’s government, meanwhile, assessed the project’s environmental impact as positive.

İmamoğlu has described the project as a betrayal of the city and last month terminated a protocol of cooperation with the canal agreed by the city’s previous AKP administration.

He has challenged the government’s environmental assessment and vowed to investigate the sale of plots of land along the proposed canal to foreign investors, including the mother of the emir of Qatar.

This, according to Kristian Brakel, Istanbul head of Berlin-based think tank the Heinrich Böll Foundation, is one reason Erdoğan has been so adamant about the plan - because there are now political and commercial consequences to not building it.

“They’ve already sold big chunks of the real estate next to the future canal, and I assume that some of the buyers would be really angry that their new land is just in the middle of nowhere, with no waterfront view,” he told Ahval in a podcast.

Last month Erdoğan said the canal also had a political dimension that would be revealed when the time was right. The canal could generate significant revenue for the government, as it could charge a fee to ships looking to avoid the 14-hour delays to pass through the Bosporus, which is free of charge as per the Montreux Convention of 1936. Brakel said that Erdoğan hates to bow in the face of criticism.

“He’s just not the guy for compromise, especially when it comes to these ‘crazy projects’,” said Brakel. “I think there is a certain vision, a vision of grandeur.”

Elmira Bayrasli, co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, which advocates for greater women’s involvement in the media, and a lecturer at Bard College, argued that Turkish people were increasingly fed-up with this top-down, strongman style. She said the launch of new parties by former senior AKP politicians Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan underscored the weakening of support for the president.

“Whether that is going to cause Erdoğan to reconsider his leadership style and governance remains to be seen,” she told Ahval in a podcast. “These two political parties will certainly create cracks in the traditional AKP support that Erdoğan has traditionally relied on.”

This in turn is likely to aid the national rise of İmamoğlu, who, like Turkey’s leader, is from a modest family originally from the Black Sea region. İmamoğlu also embraces his religious identity, unusual for a politician from the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“He is very appealing to people in Turkey regardless of their political affiliations,” said Bayrasli.

Barring deeper economic troubles or a massive outpouring of dissent, Brakel expected the canal to be built as planned. The first seems less likely, as Turkey’s economy has returned to growth in recent months, but the latter remains a distinct possibility.

Last month, İmamoğlu proposed a referendum on the canal. Days later, a survey by Artıbir polling found nearly three of every four Istanbul residents (72.4 percent) were opposed to the project.

Combined with his double victory in Istanbul mayoral elections last year - he won by a nose in March, then via landslide in the June re-run of the vote - İmamoğlu is poised to present a national challenge to Erdoğan, who has led Turkey for 17 years.

“There is a clear understanding that he is the most likely challenger,” said Brakel. “If he manages to get a big ‘no’ to the canal, then he would’ve beaten Erdoğan for a third time. So politically it’s a clever move.”

A number of Turkish commentators have expressed a similar view. “Kanal Istanbul is a project that speeds up the government’s descent from power and strengthens Ekrem İmamoğlu’s political career,” Emre Kongar wrote in Cumhuriyet newspaper.

To some extent, İmamoğlu’s political popularity today is immaterial, as Turkey is not slated to hold another election until November 2023. Yet several observers, including Ömer Taşpınar of the Brookings Institution, have hinted that Erdoğan might soon call for an early vote.

Bayrasli saw some wisdom in such a move, particularly as Turkish voters are beginning to tire of Erdoğan’s foreign interventions, first in Syria and more recently in Libya.

“Erdoğan is very worried about his own political future. I think calling early elections would definitely give him an edge,” she said. “It doesn’t allow Davutoğlu and Babacan to develop their political platforms and really build a grassroots movement.”

Brakel was unsure whether these new parties would make a major impact, even in the longer-term, and saw the lingering sting of municipal defeats and continuing economic troubles as problematic for the AKP.

“Erdoğan would be unwise to call early elections,” he said.


© Ahval English