Could a Multibillion-Dollar Canal Be Erdogan’s Undoing in Turkey?

Could a Multibillion-Dollar Canal Be Erdogan’s Undoing in Turkey?
A ship sails through the Bosporus strait in Istanbul, Turkey, June 24, 2018 (AP photo by Emrah Gurel).

ISTANBUL—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made multibillion-dollar infrastructure schemes a hallmark of his years in power, championing megaprojects like an ongoing extension of Turkey’s high-speed rail network and a gargantuan new airport outside Istanbul. He and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, claim they spur economic development and create jobs. Many activists in Turkey have long opposed Erdogan’s building spree due to its high social and environmental costs, but have had little success in stopping it.

That may change with Erdogan’s latest push for what he once called his “crazy project”: digging a 28-mile canal on the western side of Istanbul to connect the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. It would amount to a second Bosporus. Critics argue the massive canal would have calamitous impacts on the environment and on the city’s urban landscape. Their efforts have the backing of Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, a rising star in the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, who was elected mayor last year in an upset victory over the AKP. If the protest movement gains traction, it could dent Erdogan’s popularity and become a major issue in the 2023 presidential election, when Imamoglu could challenge Erdogan’s hold on power.

Erdogan first floated the idea of the Istanbul Canal in 2011, when he was prime minister. He made it a promise of his 2018 presidential campaign, and has since stated he wants to complete the project by 2023—in time for the election and for a planned celebration of the centenary of the founding of the Turkish republic. The government has said it will break ground on the canal before the end of the year.

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