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  1. The Weekend Report
30 March 2024

Can Turkey be saved?

Istanbul's fiercely fought mayoral election could decide the country's political future.

By Kaya Genç

Shortly after two earthquakes shook southern Turkey and north-west Syria on 6 February 2023, leaving more than 60,000 dead and 121,000 injured, Turkey’s minister of environment and urbanisation, Murat Kurum, became the official face of the response. Kurum had long stood at the centre of the country’s construction craze. He was, as an engineer, site manager in private construction companies for years before working at the state’s Mass Housing Development Administration (TOKI). In 2009 he became general manager at Emlak Konut, a Turkish property developer that belongs to TOKI. As a believer in the pious capitalist cause of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Kurum represented his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in post-quake media appearances. In a May 2023 interview, Kurum said that, “Allah willing, we’ll finish 200,000 houses for survivors by the end of May and reach 319,000 by mid-to-end June.”

In chirping tones, he added: “We’ll make those 11 cities affected by the quake stand up simultaneously for this project that we call Rising Anatolia.” (In the following weeks, the number of pledged housing units ballooned to 679,000. Research from February 2024 shows less than 10 per cent of what Kurum and the AKP promised were delivered: 45,000 units of housing.) Yet Erdoğan was so impressed by Kurum’s devotion, the president picked the minister in January 2024 as his party’s mayoral candidate for Istanbul.

The local elections on 31 March 2024 will be a plebiscite not only on how to run Istanbul but on Turkey’s future course. On the one side is Kurum, the metonym for the AKP, which the political scientist Bahadır Türk has characterised as “the embodiment of Turkish tradesman in a political party”. Then there is the incumbent, Ekrem İmamoğlu, who came to office in 2019, and has been pursuing a different vision. İmamoğlu, a member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) founded by Atatürk in 1923, took over the city after a quarter-century rule by the AKP and its predecessor. He promised at the start of his term to transform Istanbul into a different town, where “people don’t honk the horn, or throw litter to the road from the car”. He said Istanbulites would be “kind and civilised from now on”. He also promised transparency: all the processes of his administration would be shared with voters. “It will be a transparent, participatory Istanbul. A city that leaves nobody outside. A just city.” A month after his election, the Istanbul municipality began live-streaming its council meetings.

Soon, Erdoğan, Turkey’s hegemon, intervened. In September 2019 he invited the country’s mayors to his palace in Ankara, reserving a chair for each. Mayors stood up when the autocrat entered the room. When they sat down, İmamoğlu’s chair creaked and broke into pieces. “We didn’t do this. You broke the chair,” Erdoğan joked. “Now you’ve got to pay for it.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the interior ministry opened an investigation into İmamoğlu’s campaign to collect money to help people in economic need, freezing the accounts where the donations were saved. In 2022, İmamoğlu was sentenced to two years, seven months, and 15 days in prison for “insulting the country’s top election officials”. He has appealed the verdict.

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İmamoğlu had committed the sin of attacking the system Erdoğan had meticulously built since 1994. “The era of serving one man,” he said in April 2019, “was over.” As Erdoğan suspected, İmamoğlu’s ambitions exceeded the mayoralty. In 2023, the Istanbul mayor joined Mansur Yavaş, the CHP mayor of Ankara, and toured the country campaigning for the opposition ahead of the May general elections. Had the opposition triumphed, they would have served as vice-presidents. (Erdoğan won the presidential election by more than four points.)

İmamoğlu, 53, is a popular politician. He often says the city he likes the best outside of Istanbul is Vienna, whose wealth of social housing he admires. A bookworm, he lists Amin Maalouf as one of his favourite authors; Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is his favourite film. Each year, he runs the Istanbul marathon. And how does his mayoral scorecard look after five years? He seems to have devoted his term as mayor to fighting poverty and inequality. Tayfun Kahraman, a city planner who worked for him before Erdoğan’s prosecutors ordered Kahraman’s arrest for his alleged role in organising 2013’s anti-governmental Gezi protests, called İmamoğlu’s rule “socialist municipalism”.

On World Food Day in 2019, İmamoğlu introduced “people’s milk”, a project distributing eight litres monthly to impoverished families. Sixty-five vans have been delivering milk to 120,000 children each month. Female sociologists have accompanied each van, gathering information in the process and checking whether there are instances of violence in those families, investigating the roots of the family’s poverty to see whether the municipality can do anything to solve it. (Erdoğan has mocked the milk initiative, asking where all the milk İmamoğlu promised to distribute was; the mayor responded by saying he refused to boast about his achievements and that the milk had all been quietly delivered). “People’s bread”, another municipal initiative, provides 10 per cent of Istanbul’s bread demand, selling affordable, quality loaves at 3,000 locations throughout the city.

İmamoğlu has also tried to tackle Turkey’s financial crisis and the meltdown of its currency against the dollar since 2018. The municipality delivered 5,000 nutrition packages daily; its “young college student support packs” have reached 200,000 students in four years. At the same time, a “women support line” serves women in Turkish, English, Arabic and Kurdish, offering sanitary pads 24/7. Women who have recently left female shelters receive an initial 10,000 lira payment and then 2,500 lira each month.

The popularity of İmamoğlu’s socialist-looking moves have rattled the AKP. For diehard defenders of private entrepreneurship, such interference with economic life amounts to blasphemy. The AKP’s support network in Istanbul between 1994, when Erdoğan was elected mayor there, and 2019, when a crony he handpicked lost to İmamoğlu, operated much differently. The AKP’s social services were based on Islamic charity: sending food boxes to houses, using foundations run by Islamist business leaders – and Erdoğan’s son and daughter, according to some allegations – to organise dinners, sports activities and other events that allowed Istanbulites to network with the AKP’s local leaders. This feudal patronage system was based on the personal friendships of AKP apparatchiks and voters.

Murat Kurum, Erdoğan’s candidate for 2024, has tried to gain support with the help of the AKP’s well-oiled election mechanism. A March study by the respected pollster MetroPoll suggests İmamoğlu is three points ahead of Kurum. “Before everything turns upside down” is Kurum’s election motto. It refers to anxieties around an impending earthquake in the city that it is feared will be as destructive as the one in 1766. A recent study found the possibility of a quake with a magnitude of 7 by 2030 at 50 per cent. According to the best-case scenario, such an event would cause 48,000 buildings to collapse, kill 14,000 Istanbulites and wound 8,000. In the worst-case scenario, the death figures reach 53,000, the gravely injured 31,000, and the hospitalised 140,000.

“Urban renewal” ideology has been the AKP’s answer to quake fears since 2012. The Law of Transformation of Areas under the Disaster Risks passed in parliament that year, giving Erdoğan and his ministers immense powers to gentrify Istanbul and transfer its rent to friendly businesses. A former AKP minister of environment and urbanisation, Erdoğan Bayraktar, famously characterised the spirit of the law in an interview: “The more we destroy it, the more beautiful Istanbul becomes.”  

The urban renewal law plays on real fears but is designed not to safeguard the city, but instead boost profits of Erdoğan’s base and allies. In the past 12 years, the urban ideology has turned into a central pillar of the AKP’s reign. The words “natural disaster” appear just two times in the 2012 law, which has greatly empowered the private contractors who constitute the AKP’s power base. Anyone older than 18 can apply for a contractor’s licence from the Ministry of Environment and Urbanisation. The 2012 law also provided the ministry limitless power to kick people out of their houses when deemed “unsafe”.

Yet scientists have shown that only 10 per cent of areas deemed “unsafe” match that characterisation. According to Haluk Eyidoğan, a professor of geophysics, out of 1,500 hectares of land that was considered “unsafe for disasters” since 2012, only 1 per cent is unsafe. In places like Derbent, in Istanbul’s Sarıyer neighbourhood, where the ground quality is safe and most buildings are two or three stories, the quake risk is negligible. But that does not lessen the thirst for the neighbourhood’s property value. 

Another entry to the AKP’s lexicon of gentrification is the phrase “reserve areas”. Since 2012, the government has announced 152 such areas in Istanbul, which would normally be allocated to people needing housing because they’re affected by a natural disaster. Instead, the AKP has used the concept to open new lands to construction and sell them to the ultra-rich, with the result that most of those buildings remain unoccupied. Those reserve areas, comprising completely untouched areas and parklands, are normally closed to construction, a process that the scheme cunningly reverses under the pretence of safety. 

İmamoğlu’s answer to the urban renewal craze has been modest. Since 2023, the municipality has paid the yearly rent of people forced out of their houses by the earthquake. Kiptaş, the construction arm of his local government, promised to build 18,000 homes for people whose houses have been found to be unsafe; 5,925 of these have been delivered. When he tried to change regulations for building safer houses (according to current law, a construction engineer can oversee four different building sites at once), İmamoğlu hit a wall: his campaign to reduce that number to one failed to become law in the city.

Lacking the central government’s resources, İmamoğlu has increasingly had to devise clever ideas. The “pending bill”, for example, is a solidarity scheme that allows people to pay the water, natural gas and electric bills of strangers in need. (Istanbulites donated more than 125 million liras to the system in 2023.) He also made improvements in gender equality, giving control of the city’s Golden Horn shipyard and its ferry lines to female leaders. They opened 13 new ferry lines, and made the ferry-line services run around the clock. Bus rides became free for mothers with infants.

In the coming years, the biggest challenge for Istanbul’s – and İmamoğlu’s – future will be Canal Istanbul. If realised, this artificial sea-level waterway project will bisect Istanbul’s European side and form an island between Asia and Europe. Critics say it would devastate the city’s ecosystems, and imperil its water supply, destroying the equilibrium between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Erdoğan, the architect of this idea, has boastfully called it his “crazy project”. İmamoğlu is firmly against Erdoğan’s ecocidal plans. “We’ll get rid of people who look at the Earth and think of apartment buildings,” he said.

Yet that will be a challenge when Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, has near complete domination over the airwaves. Evening news broadcasts are filled with stories of Kurum and his allies coming to the rescue of the 2023 earthquakes’ survivors by giving them housing on credit. Will the AKP’s propaganda machine deliver the feat of “reconquering” Istanbul for Erdoğan?

Or the outcome may resemble that of 1994’s local elections, which saw Erdoğan elected to lead Istanbul. The ambitious mayor ascended the political ladder to his imperial presidency. İmamoğlu seems to share that political drive. In a recently published interview, he defined himself as “sadly, the guardian of Istanbul”. He may spend the next four years in that role until the 2028 presidential election, “when Turkey will have a new opportunity for change in politics”. His biggest aim, in those years, would be to “turn Istanbul into a revolutionary example and create the conditions of that change”. Whether he succeeds this week will define Turkey’s future.

[See also: After the earthquake, the rage in Turkey is greater than the pain]

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