Was the minister replaced because of Kanal Istanbul?
Mehmet Barlas, the lead writer for the daily Sabah, on his weekend column, suggested that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been troubled with two recent developments at a moment when his government has been intensely trying to tackle the spread of the coronavirus.
One of them, Barlas argued, was an initiative by the head of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Ali Erbaş. Although the mosques were shut down and Friday prayers were all suspended as part of massive measures to curb the spread of the virus, Erbaş held a special Friday prayer on March 27 for a handful of selected people in Ankara.
Veteran journalist Barlas said Erdoğan knew about Erbaş’s move late Friday only after the prayer occurred and felt very uncomfortable.
The second, and perhaps more important, development that has drawn Erdoğan’s reaction was the holding of the first tender of the Kanal Istanbul project, according to Barlas, who claimed that this untimely move would be the main reason behind the sudden dismissal of Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Cahit Turhan via a midnight presidential decree.
The journalist gives the impression that Erdoğan was unaware of both interventions beforehand. Many others, however, object to this characterization on the grounds that the governance system has been very much centralized and under full control of the president since the executive-presidential system entered into force in July 2018.
As highlighted by Barlas, those who follow Turkish politics closely in Ankara link the removal of the Transportation Minister with the untimely Kanal Istanbul tender. But not only that; Turhan’s dismissal has a deeper background.
Transportation and infrastructure have always been very important for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments since it came to power late 2002. It has placed multibillion-dollar projects for the improvement of land, air and sea routes through the construction of airports across the country, including gigantic Istanbul Airport; the bridges linking Asia to Europe through the 3rd Bosporus Bridge and the Dardanelles Bridge as well as the high-speed trains at the core of its economic activities in the last two decades.
The Transportation Ministry is, therefore, a ministry Erdoğan attaches great importance to and it was well-known that he was not happy with the performance of outgoing Minister Turhan, specifically due to his slowness and lack of enthusiasm over the Kanal Istanbul.
Dubbed the “crazy project” by many as it aims to create an artificial seaway linking the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea, as well as a new residential settlement on the two banks of the channel, Kanal Istanbul is recognized as Erdoğan’s major objective to reach in the next period.
It’s believed that Turhan was late in accomplishing the preparations for opening the first tenders of the project and in coordinating related works with other ministries. He, however, held the tender at the worst timing possible.
Additionally, Turhan has also been criticized for not sufficiently contributing to the government’s efforts to stem the spread of the virus. He wanted to indirectly respond to this criticism at the handover ceremony where he was replaced by his deputy, Adil Karaismailoğlu, over the weekend.
Underlining that his ministry has acted early in the fight against the coronavirus, he said, “During this period, it has operated and continued its activities domestically and internationally in line with the decisions of our Health Ministry and team of experts. Thankfully, by implementing these measures we have not had major issues in our social or economic lives. As a ministry, we must implement our government’s decisions together and attempt to overcome this disaster with as little damage as possible. I felt the need for these words as I am leaving my position.”
Another reason for this replacement is the visible impact of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who was elected to lead Turkey’s largest metropole in a re-run election in June 2019. As a young and very active mayor, İmamoğlu continues to play a central role in delivering services in Istanbul and humanitarian aid to the poor amid economic difficulties and ongoing outbreak.
By the appointment of Karaismailoğlu, a younger politician known for his loyalty to Erdoğan since the mid-1990s at the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the AKP government hopes to observe a more tough opposition against İmamoğlu in Istanbul. Karaismailoğlu had to leave his position as the deputy secretary-general at the Istanbul Municipality after İmamoğlu won the elections. He was then appointed as the deputy transportation minister.
The dismissal of Turhan marks an important development as it’s the first replacement in the cabinet since July 2018, revisiting the questions on whether Erdoğan will resort to a more substantial reshuffle amid the continued fight against the coronavirus.