"Alternative" tourism is all the rage these days. Rio has its favela tours and New York its organized outings to the outer boroughs in search of obscure ethnic cuisines. And what about Istanbul? Well, perhaps the city should start thinking about offering excursions that allow visitors to take in what is becoming Istanbul's newest claim to fame: it's profusion of environmentally, aesthetically and legally dubious megaprojects.
Several recent articles and online projects are certainly making virtual tours of Istanbul's megaprojects -- grand construction schemes that are very much at the heart of the recent corruption scandals that rocked Turkey -- possible. A new article from the Istanbul-based Cornucopia magazine offers an introduction to Istanbul's "ten most gruesome development projects," from the new bridge across the Bosphorus to plans for a mall to be built on the spot where the city's most iconic movie theater now stands. The Megaprojeleristanbul.com site, meanwhile, offers an interactive map that gives a detailed look (in Turkish only) at many more of the big projects being built across Istanbul. Networks of Dispossession, another site, goes a bit more high-concept, with spider web-like maps that attempt to trace the relationship between all the different companies involved in Istanbul's megaprojects.
By now, Turks have grown accustomed to being cast in the role of bit players in the one-man show, starring Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Turkish politics have become. This was perhaps best illustrated during the recent municipal election campaign, where the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) rallies starred Erdogan rather than the local candidate, who, almost like an afterthought, was usually brought on stage after the PM's long speech to quietly wave at the crowd while standing in his leader's shadow.
Having successfully worked through the drama of the corruption allegations against him and his inner circle to emerge victorious in Sunday's vote, Erdogan is now facing something of a Hamlet moment: namely, to run or not to run in the August election for President?
After the AKP's strong win in the 2011 parliamentary elections, it was assumed that since his party's bylaws would keep him from running for a fourth term as PM, Erdogan's next move would be into the presidential palace, albeit after pushing through a new constitution that would grant the President increased powers. But since the AKP's efforts at constitutional reform and at creating a more powerful presidency have faltered, the new thinking has been that Erdogan is likely to push the AKP to scrap its term limit bylaws, which would allow him to remain PM and for the current President, Abdullah Gul, to run for reelection in August.
Sunday's local elections in Turkey might have yielded results, but they offered very little in the way of resolution for a deeply divided Turkey -- far from it, in fact. Considering that the opposition is challenging the vote's final tally in several spots, most importantly in Ankara, and that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees his party's strong showing in the polls as an affirmation of his divisive brand of politics, Turkey, with presidential elections coming up this summer and parliamentary ones in the beginning of 2015, is looking at a near future filled with more polarization and further domestic upheaval.
Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) won an estimated 45 percent of the total vote and held on (unless recounts prove otherwise) to Istanbul and Ankara, set the tone for the upcoming long election season with a victory speech that promised vengeance for those who targeted his party before the election with leaks of recordings that linked the PM and his inner circle with high-level corruption. "From now on, we’ll walk into their dens. They will pay for this," Erdogan said in a speech that was dismissive of the entire opposition in general.
Turkey watchers in Washington were afforded a rare sighting a few months back: the first ever appearance in the city by the head of the Republican People's Party (CHP), the main Turkish opposition party.
The visit by the party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a mild-mannered former bureaucrat, was dismissed by many as ineffective (to be fair, it's hard to be noticed when your adversary is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan). But the underlying point of the trip was worth noting -- after years of wandering in the political wilderness, mostly through its own doing, and of being dismissed at home and abroad as utterly hopeless, the CHP was again trying to make itself relevant.
Checking in with Washington was a welcome move, but, of course, becoming politically relevant in Turkey requires, well, succeeding in Turkey. In that sense, Sunday's local elections will provide a crucial test for the CHP's efforts to revitalize the party and present itself as a credible alternative to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Failure by the CHP to score some solid victories at the polls -- holding on to Izmir, winning either Ankara or Istanbul and boosting its share of the national vote -- will put into question not only its future viability as an opposition party, but will also have profound implications for the future of democratic politics in Turkey.
Turkish politics have entered a surreal vortex where every day produces evermore shocking developments in such a dizzying rate that yesterday's mind-blowing news is quickly forgotten.
Today is a perfect example: it started with with the unsettling sounds of a Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking at an election rally with a voice so strained that he sounded like he had just inhaled a balloonful of helium, moved on to the truly shocking news of the posting online of a recording of a high-level national security meeting where a possible false flag operation to allow Turkey to invade Syria was discussed, and then ended with the announcement that access to YouTube (where the recording was posted) had just been blocked by the government. In other words, just another day in today's Turkey.
Despite its citizens going to the polls in the wake of military coups, economic crashes and other crises, Turkey has managed to develop a strong record of running free and fair elections since the country ended one-party rule in 1950. But with local polls being held on Sunday in the midst of a particularly heated and deeply polarized political fight between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition, there are growing questions about whether this vote will end Turkey's streak of untainted elections.
Over the last few weeks and months, the amount of rumors and questions surrounding the sanctity of Sunday's elections has been quickly increasing (a good example can be found here). The reason for this is clear: the AKP and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after a decade of easy electoral victories are suddenly finding themselves fighting the most intense and complex political battle they have yet to face and have staked their legitimacy to winning big at the ballot box. Failing to score a decisive victory on Sunday, by losing in Istanbul or Ankara or by failing to win more than 40 percent of the national vote, is a scenario that Erdogan -- based on the level of invective he is using against his opponents -- is clearly not wiling to consider.
What does Turkey have in common with Iran, North Korea, China and Cuba? As of last night, the NATO member and European Union candidate had joined those four other countries with dismal freedom of expression records as one of the few nations to have instituted a total ban on access to Twitter. Turkish Twitter users have been quick to circumvent the block, but the move marks yet another disturbing anti-democratic turn for the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The block on Twitter access started late yesterday, just a few weeks after the government passed a new internet law that gives it enhanced powers to shut websites down and only hours after Erdogan vowed at a campaign rally to "eradicate" Twitter, which has been playing a prominent role in recent weeks as the conduit for links to leaked phone calls and documents connecting the PM and other official to corrupt activity. The Hurriyet Daily News provides some interesting background on how the new internet law was used to put the Twitter block in place through executive order, rather than a court action:
Twitter, the social media platform with 12 million Turkish users, has been blocked by the Communication Technologies Institution (BTK), working under the Ministry of Transport, Maritime and Communication.
Ever since Turkish Airlines introduced a few years back direct flights from Washington's Dulles Airport to Istanbul, the American capital and Turkey and have somehow seemed less far apart. Now, as the ongoing battle between Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the movement of Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen heats up, with both sides trying to pull Washington into the scrum, the two places seem even more closely linked, although in a way that could ultimately drive a wedge between Turkey and the US.
With Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan facing a mounting corruption scandal and the constant leaking of recordings of incriminating personal phone calls, which the PM and his supporters say are being orchestrated by the Gulen movement, Erdogan is striking back, accusing the movement and its leader -- who currently lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania -- of working to destabilize Turkey.
In a television interview last week, Erdogan said that he recently spoke to President Barack Obama on the phone and delivered that message to him. “The person who is responsible for the unrest in Turkey lives in your country, in Pennsylvania. I told him this clearly,” Erdogan said during the interview. “I said, ‘I expect what’s necessary (to be done).’ You have to take the necessary stance if someone threatens my country’s security.” According to Erdogan, Obama told him: "We got the message."
As described in a Turko-File blog post yesterday, the Tuesday death of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan -- an Istanbul boy who spent 269 days in a coma after apparantly being struck in the head by a police tear gas canister -- has helped to reignite the protests that first rocked Istanbul last summer during the Gezi Park demonstrations.
One of the interesting elements of these new events has been the presence of bread loaves carried by demonstrators as symbols of protest, to commemorate the fact that Berkin had left his home on the day he was injured in order to go buy bread. (The Bianet website has a nice gallery of silent "bread" protests held two days ago after Berkin died.)
Writing on her blog, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explains why bread is proving to be such a powerful symbol of protest in Turkey:
Bread is quasi-sacred in Turkey. In Turkey, it is the source of nourishment and it represents both human labor and God’s bounty through nature. If a piece of bread falls to the ground, my grandmother kisses it after picking it up from where it fell. Wasting bread is seen as a sin, and not having bread at a table will get you howls of protest from people who will tell you they’ll be hungry without bread. (Yes, in Turkey, people will eat bread with pasta, for example).
Berkin was buried today, in a procession that was attended by perhaps tens of thousands and which was soon forcibly broken up by police using gas and water cannons. Held aloft by many of the mourners? Loaves of bread.
A massive police crackdown may have put an end to the occupation of Istanbul's Gezi Park last summer, but it wouldn't be correct to say that it put a stop to the protest movement that was born during that occupation. Instead, the Gezi movement has been simmering slowly since last summer, with occasional flareups here and there, waiting for a spark that might reignite it.
That spark might very well have appeared, in the form of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy who died today after spending 269 days in a coma, brought about after he was apparantly struck in the head at close range by a police tear gas canister. According to his parents, Berkin went out to buy bread on the morning of June 16 and got caught up in the Gezi-related protests that were taking place in his Istanbul neighborhood. He never came home.