Category Archives: Politics

Back to Istanbul

I returned to Istanbul last night following seven weeks away in England, feeling energised and excited to be here in time for the presidential election. I also have two long articles coming out in the next couple of weeks: a piece for Newsweek looking at Istanbul’s damaging construction boom and the politics behind it, and a piece on falconry on the Black Sea coast for the White Review, which I have been talking to friends for so long now, they must be wondering if it will ever appear.

Last week I was very fortunate to be invited to speak at London’s Frontline Club as part of a panel on the presidential election. The takeaway was more or less that Erdogan’s victory is a foregone conclusion, there are fears over rising authoritarianism, questions over the medium/long term prospects of the Turkish economy, and that the AKP remains the only game in town. The panel, chaired by BBC Turkish head Murat Nişancıoğlu, also featured former UK ambassador David Reddaway, Chatham House analyst Fadi Hakura, and recent LSE PhD graduate Karabekir Akkoyunlu. We were all more or less singing from the same hymn sheet,  with some differences over the future prospects of the Kurdish peace process, the continuance of which remains the greatest source of optimism in Turkey today.

Here is a video of the whole talk:

Podcast on the upcoming Turkish elections

Aaron Stein (who blogs at TurkeyWonk) and I got together this morning to do a podcast on Turkey’s upcoming local elections. Here you can hear me stuttering, rambling, generalising and self-contradicting in an interesting counterpoint to Aaron’s more incisive observations. The bottom line from our discussion was: don’t expect an AKP rout on March 30. Both Aaron and I predicted AKP will hold Istanbul, and probably Ankara too, and get a share of the vote in the low 40s. Who knows, though?

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Istanbul’s tumour

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The two photographs above are satellite images that I just pulled off Google Earth showing Istanbul’s historic peninsula. The first was taken on July 24 last year, the second on December 24. Spot the difference.

The patch of artificial land that now distends the underside of the peninsula (it is impossible not to liken it to a tumour) is approximately 1.4km long and 500 metres wide. It a shocking visualisation of much that is worrying in today’s Turkey.

This bulge of earth that has radically and permanently altered the contours of one of the world’s oldest and greatest cities was not carved out of the Sea of Marmara in the name of profit. In a way, that might almost have been better – or at least less ironic. This 270,000sqm hernia is to function principally as a political rallying ground: a vast arena foisted on the city without meaningful consultation, and intended to demonstrate the democratic mandate of one man.

Of course, this is a simplification and it needs qualifying. The government can truthfully state that the arena may be used by other political parties, and for other purposes – concerts etc. The Yenikapı project also includes things other than a rallying ground. It will home a water treatment facility, a major transport hub, and, apparently, an ‘archaeo-park’ (which will display the contents of the ancient pre-Byzantine port of Theodosia, which was discovered on the site during excavation for the Marmaray Tunnel). In fact, originally it was not intended to house a rallying ground at all. You can see the plans put forward by the three joint winners of the contest to design the project here. At least two of them attempted something that was in harmony with the existing coastline. These three were apparently going to work in conjunction with the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality to develop the project. I have not yet succeeded in finding out exactly what happened next, but later a very different design emerged. This picture from the company doing the infill shows a rallying ground intended to accommodate 1.25 million people and, as its website still proclaims, “two gigantic car parks”:

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However, yet another design has emerged, with the rallying ground seemingly replaced with a large park:

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Without having done the research, I would hazard a guess that this later drawing was put about after certain events in late May and June last year, and after which the Government suddenly remembered how keen it was on green spaces. But the point is that we won’t really know what this bulge of land will contain until it’s actually finished. That’s more or less how development goes in Turkey: there is little meaningful public participation or oversight even for projects as monumental in their implications as this.

The Government has already put it to good use. On March 23, the last weekend before the upcoming local elections, on which Erdoğan says he has staked his political career, it hosted its first rally with some 220,000 people attending. Erdoğan’s mass rallies have become elaborate propaganda exercises designed to paper over the crisis of legitimacy he is facing. That’s not to say they demonstrate false support – Erdoğan certainly still commands a large and passionate following. I do not doubt for a second that he can fill this square, and I’m sure that to many of his followers these displays must be convincing and comforting. To opponents and many outside observers, however, they represent an abuse of power. Public ferries and buses were commandeered in order to bring the crowds to Yenikapı, such that ordinary transport services were cut back elsewhere in the city – a flagrant misuse of public resources for political ends. The next day, the fisheye lenses of the pro-government press reproduced the spectacle in a series of eerily similar front pages:

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When I first googled ‘Yenikapi rallying ground’ I was surprised to see that one of the entries that came up on the first page was ‘Nazi party rallying grounds’ in Wikipedia. Indeed, state-martialled mass political rallies have rarely been the sign of a healthy democracy. In this case, they’re the sign of one in deep crisis.

Perhaps at some point in the future this new piece of land will perform a valuable public function beyond the needs of Erdoğan and the AKP: a green space to which people can escape from the crush and the smog of the city, perhaps. In the grimmest outcome of all, it could end up as a huge shopping mall. Today, however, it is a glaring reflection of a society undergoing a very worrying phase.

BTW, I’m researching this topic more. Anyone who has been following the Yenikapi project closely, please feel free to get in touch via Twitter/email (in the about me section).

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