In Turkey, Erdogan's 'mega-projects' push forward

Turkish prime minister’s massive projects raise green concerns but proceed unabated.

Erdogan jazz hands 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Erdogan jazz hands 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ISTANBUL - An undersea rail tunnel linking Asia with Europe, the first in a series of multi-billion dollar construction projects in Istanbul backed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is close to completion. Engineers are now conducting tests on the 8.5-mile tube, part of which runs beneath the busy Bosphorus Strait shipping channel.
The undersea tunnel - the world's deepest at 56 meters (184 feet) - is scheduled to open to the public on the country's 90th anniversary, October 29, and will begin to shuttle 1.5 million people a day between the city's two sides according to government officials. Under construction since 2004, it is a cornerstone of a series of planned undertakings intended to modernize transportation in Istanbul.
So-called 'mega-projects' have been the signature of Erdogan’s reign during the decade he's been in power, and his ambitious plans continue at full-speed. Among the projects Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) support are one of the world's largest airports to be built as Istanbul's third gateway; a large shipping canal that will connect the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara; a third Bosphorus bridge; an Istanbul financial center; and a new, landscape-defining mosque built in a public park on a towering Istanbul hill.
“Construction has been one of the key drivers of the Turkish economy in the last few years,” Emre Deliveli, an Istanbul-based economist, told The Media Line. “What I've observed within the last 10 years is that the AKP loves these big construction projects.”
But such government plans, including one to demolish and develop Istanbul's Gezi park, sparked weeks of protests in May and June that spread across Turkey. Sporadic demonstrations continue while Erdogan has refused to back down in his confrontation with protesters, using police to forcibly squash public dissent.
Erdogan’s heavy-handed response to his critics has drawn the ire of the United States and European Union, along with human rights groups, both domestic and global. “The international image of [Erdogan] as a liberal reformer has definitely been tarnished and, perhaps I would, say destroyed,” Halil Magnus Karaveli, a Turkey analyst with Johns Hopkins University's Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, told The Media Line.
Still, the prime minister continues to enjoy considerable support within Turkey, with some polls showing fully half the population continuing to back him despite the protests. “People who loved him, love him more, and people who didn't like him, hate his guts," Deliveli said.
Supporters say Erdogan has helped grow Turkey's economy into one of the world's leading emerging markets, praising his investment in schools, hospitals and public transportation.
Istanbul's growing comprehensive public transportation system alone is seen as one advantage the city may have for its bid to host the 2020 Olympics - a decision that will be announced next month. That may be why large infrastructure projects continue despite strong concerns about their environmental impacts voiced by Erdogan’s opponents.
For example, plans for Istanbul's third airport, to be built north of the city, call for the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of trees. But analysts say the green issues, the construction projects help cement Erdogan's domestic image among his supporters.
“It's something you can easily observe,” Deliveli said. “You drive by and you see all this construction, and you say, 'these guys are doing something.'”
The massive undertakings, which reinforce Erdogan’s image among his supporters, appear to do little to win over Erdogan's critics, who see him as excessively authoritarian with little regard for public input, including on these large-scale projects. The criticism, though, appears to have little or no effect on the prime minister, who has always ignored public opinion, as his relentless quest to build up Istanbul and Turkey as modern centers of political and economic power continues unabated.
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