Populism is driving Turkish politics. Aiming to reduce the sliding economy and the seasonal devaluation of the local currency, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is grabbing at straws to prop up his crumbling political dominance.
He has launched a $15 billion megaproject to construct a new waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Aegean and Mediterranean Sea.
The Istanbul Canal is an endeavor he himself once described as “crazy.”
Erdogan wants the support of local hard-liner nationalists to boost what’s left of his political appeal.
These nationalists, and particularly members and supporters of the ruling AK Party view the Istanbul Canal as a symbol of national pride and sovereignty. It backs up the Montreux Convention agreement of 1936 concerning the Dardanelles strait.
Broadly the convention permitted free passage of commercial ships through the canal and imposed restrictions on military vessels.
Turkey’s aim at the time was to remain unbiased in any international confrontation similar to what happened in World War I. Erdogan wants to reciprocate the effects of Montreux by launching this project.
It’s a perfect project for Erdogan to exploit to see support transpose in casts for him at the ballot box.
The government claims the canal is being pursued from economic and security considerations and has claimed congestion caused by mega tankers crossing the Bosporus endangers the surrounding environment. It has cited a 1979 accident that led to enormous amounts of oil leaking from a ship.
No, the populist political agenda cannot be overlooked.
Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem Imamoglu confirmed this when he expressed a staunch opposing stance to the project saying that he believes it threatens the city.
Ten retired naval generals that voiced their objections were put under house arrest.
Erdogan believes executing this project will make him a national hero who has made a five centuries long dream come true.
Since the days of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th Century, the idea of building a grand artificial sea-level waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara has been an ambition unrealized.
Suleiman came close when architects almost completed plans, while some preparations started. The project collapsed with military conflicts rife in the region.
Over the ensuing centuries the concept has resurfaced, and continues to.
In 2011, the project was re-introduced again by then Prime Minister Erdogan. The proposal sparked controversy in the country.
“Either Istanbul or Canal” was one of the famous slogans recurrently raised by protestors against the project in the city over several periods of time.
Today, Erdogan appears firm in his stance that implementing the project is essential, and announced this during a ceremony for its launch.
“Today, we are opening a new page in the history of Turkey’s development. Whether you like or not, we are starting it, we will build it, and we will deliver it to our nation.”
Neo-Ottomanism has engrossed Erdogan throughout his governing tenure. From building grand luxurious mansions to pursuing expansionist foreign policies it’s clear that Erdogan’s political defense mechanism is to go big in the ‘making the empire strong again’ rhetoric. The Istanbul Canal is simply more of the same.