Kanal İstanbul to be the new political battleground

Kanal İstanbul to be the new political battleground

The idea belongs to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. When he first talked about it in 2011, he defined it as “the crazy project.”

The Kanal Istanbul project is based on opening an artificial seaway between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. It aims at mitigating the oil tanker traffic through the Bosphorus Strait, according to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its election ally Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

In a recent statement, President Erdoğan implied that it will bring additional “economic and legal benefits.”

“There is no right that has been recognized to us from the Montreux Convention. Vessels pass from the straits at their will. They are using your straits, but you cannot gain anything. Kanal İstanbul is not like that. Just as those who have their own rights in the case of Suez Canal and others, we will have a similar legal situation when we will do this investment.”

There is no doubt that these words have rung alarm bells in several capitals starting in Moscow. But let’s put the international dimension aside. Not that it is not important. On the contrary. But for the sake of this article, let’s focus on the domestic aspect.

The project involves constructing a new city of earthquake-resistant residential areas along the channel. Construction has been the key engine of the economy during the AKP’s two decades of governance. So, it is not that difficult to understand why there is so much enthusiasm around presidential circles.

The main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) is opposed to the project, and there is a new wave of heated debate between CHP and the AKP.

The debate revived with President Erdoğan’s recent statement that the project will start to be implemented in a short while and flared up when the Ministry of Environment and Urban Development released on Dec. 23 the environmental impact assessment report. The opponents have 10 days to communicate their objections to the 1,500-plus-page report.

Another reason why the debate has intensified is the decision of the Istanbul greater municipality to pull out from a protocol on the project, signed by the former mayor of Istanbul in 2018, a few months before the new mayor from the CHP was elected.

Ever since he was elected last June after a long battle that required him to stand on a redo election due to the government’s claims of fraud, Ekrem İmamoğlu is seen as Erdoğan’s potential adversary in the next presidential elections.

While CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has also been a vocal critic of Kanal Istanbul, due to the very location of the project, it is only natural to see İmamoğlu becoming the commander of the opposition in what stands to become the new battleground between the ruling coalition and the opposition.

Most probably this is also desired by the strategists of the presidential palace since they have seen the president coming out victorious almost all the time from highly polarized contentions. Rather than having debates based on facts and figures, the strategy of the presidential palace on the discussions of a particular subject has been to frame it on a choice between taking the side of the president or not.

It is, therefore, no surprise to see Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of MHP, dismiss the critics of Kanal İstanbul as “non-nationals,” in other words, people who are not nationalist.

İmamoğlu has come up with well-prepared counterarguments. But facts and figures might count less in this debate where the ruling coalition stands resolute in starting the project.

For the strategists of the presidential palace, the project will be a show of force to demonstrate to locals in İstanbul, and also to the rest of the country, who the real ruler of Turkey is. For the opponents of the ruling coalition, this will be a serious litmus test for İmamoğlu to demonstrate his skills for a strong and efficient objection.