AP Photo
The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, the third bridge over the Bosphorus, hours before an inauguration ceremony in Istanbul, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016.

Bridge, mosque, airport – can Turkey afford Erdoğan's mega-monuments?

With Turkey beset by a host of crises, President Erdoğan is pushing ahead with a grand list of mega-projects that project an image of success. The financing may be an issue.

“This isn’t being built for the people who live here,” says Ethem Özdemir as he considers the enormous concrete dome gradually rising beyond his home.

His neighborhood lies on Istanbul’s Çamlıca Hill, a spot so favored that the Ottoman sultans who once ruled the city built pavilions here to enjoy the breathtaking view it commands of the Bosphorus Strait.

Now Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is crowning Çamlıca with a mosque larger than anything built by the sultans: it will have a capacity for 37,500 people and is costing some $45 million.

“This is a place that can be seen from everywhere,” explains Mr. Özdemir, a 35-year-old IT specialist. “That’s why they’re building the mosque here. They want to create something to put their signature on Istanbul, like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty.”

For several years now President Erdoğan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) have being undertaking a massive construction program worth some $200 billion – more than a quarter of Turkey’s annual GDP – with about half invested in Istanbul alone.

Now, with the country facing crises including terrorist bombings, a civil war in the Kurdish southeast, a failed putsch that has triggered an authoritarian crackdown, as well as plummeting tourism revenues as a consequence, Erdoğan’s mega-projects are more crucial than ever in his effort to project an image of Turkish success to his people and the world.

“Particularly after the coup attempt, the mega-projects have become a symbol of national resilience,” says Mustafa Akyol, a newspaper columnist and author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” “They seem to say that everyone is attacking us but we are resisting and still growing.… As tangible realities they stand as icons of national self-confidence.”

The grand designs under construction include a $24 billion airport for Istanbul slated to be the world’s largest, a $7.5 billion, 270-mile highway linking Istanbul to Turkey’s third largest city Izmir, and the grandest of all still on the drawing board: a canal that will be a “second Bosphorus” running parallel to the original, linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and aimed at easing shipping traffic through strait.

The political value of such projects for the increasingly authoritarian yet popular Erdoğan was evident last month at the opening of the $3 billion Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, the third suspension bridge to span the Bosphorus.

At the Aug. 26 opening ceremony, Erdoğan quoted a Turkish saying: “When a donkey dies it leaves behind its saddle, when a man dies he leaves behind his works. We will be remembered for this.”

“Be proud of your power, Turkey,” urged a government TV commercial ahead of the inauguration.

Struggle to raise funding

Erdoğan described the bridge as a reflection of the spirit of those who took to the streets to resist July’s coup attempt in which 246 civilians were killed defying the putschists. “You are a people who stood in front of tanks, guns, helicopters, and F-16s,” he told the crowd of thousands. “You thought nothing of them. This work befits you.”

“There was a fury against the coup and that’s why the opening of this third bridge was a very emotional moment,” says Mr. Akyol. “It showed that Turkey is up and coming and can’t be stopped.”

Özdemir is among a broad section of the public that approves of these mega-projects. “These are helping to connect the city, they’re improving transport,” he says. “There’s an environmental cost, but they are necessary for our future.”

What they mean for the future of Turkey’s public finances is less certain, however. The government has justified the scope of its building program on the grounds that it is financed by the private sector, but has been forced to guarantee infrastructure-related projects with public money due to the difficulty of attracting funding.

A mixture of environmental, corruption, and feasibility concerns have driven international investors away from some of the most ambitious projects, such as the airport, and Turkey’s own private sector has struggled to raise the necessary capital.

Last month the government announced it would set up a sovereign wealth fund to help finance them.

“There are a lot of question marks about these schemes,” says Atilla Yeşilada, an Istanbul-based analyst for Global Source Partners. “They are essentially Mr. Erdoğan’s ego projects.”

Environmental costs

In the case of the Osman Gazi Bridge, a suspension toll bridge opened earlier this year across the Gulf of Izmit southeast of Istanbul, the government has guaranteed profits to the operating consortium on the basis of 40,000 vehicles a day. However, the daily average since its opening is only 5,000-6,000 vehicles, Hurriyet newspaper reported last month.

“These projects risk increasing the budget deficit if this new sovereign wealth fund starts to back them and does not get the income back,” says Mustafa Sönmez, an economist and newspaper columnist.

Since comprehensive economic reforms were instituted under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund following an economic crisis in 2001, keeping a handle on public debt has been a cornerstone of Turkey’s economic stability.

While Mr. Sönmez doubts the mega-projects could trigger a repeat of that crisis, he believes the real cost is likely to be environmental, especially in Istanbul, where the construction of Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge and the new airport are set to destroy forests to the north of the city that help supply its water and clean its air.

“These projects are very costly for Istanbul,” Sönmez says, adding that Istanbul’s high real estate values and international prominence increase the political and economic value of construction. “Erdoğan uses Istanbul like petroleum or liquid gas – its position, its land. He uses these specialities of Istanbul as a power source.”

Defining architecture

That’s nowhere more evident than at the Çamlıca Mosque, and few projects are as laden with political symbolism. During the days of the Ottoman Empire, the greatest sultans were accustomed to stamping their legacy on the city with impressive mosque complexes.

When Sultan Ahmed I built the Blue Mosque in 1609, he was accused of hubris for adorning it with six minarets. The city’s largest mosque, the Suleymiye of Suleyman the Magnificent – widely seen as the greatest of the sultans –had only four minarets.

Like Ahmed’s, Erdoğan’s mosque has six minarets; it dwarfs even Suleyman’s, and is built in the classic Ottoman style. Many Turks suspect that, like the sultans before him, he intends the complex to one day house his own tomb.

Korhan Gümüş, an architect and writer, says the project exemplifies the efforts by competing factions within Turkish society to define the nation through public architecture –a tendency that predates the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

While Turkey’s secularist republican leaders followed a modernist style, often using European architects, the country’s religious conservatives have championed a neo-Ottoman style as exemplified at Çamlıca.

“We can interpret many of these projects as an attempt to define the nation state through public space,” he says in an interview.

'Need to invest in humans'

The problem with this approach, Mr. Gümüş argues, is that it tends to exclude and alienate elements of the population who don’t share the governing party’s values. The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, for example, angered the country’s religious Alevi minority, who make up about 15 percent of the population. It is named after Sultan Selim the Grim, who earned his sobriquet due to his bloody persecution of the Shiite sect.

More divisive still is the government’s project to redesign the city’s central Taksim Square, which has long been a place associated with the country’s leftist movement, by building a mosque there and rebuilding an Ottoman-era barracks in place of Taksim’s Gezi Park. That plan triggered massive nationwide protests in the summer of 2013.

“The Turkish state is in a fragile situation, and these projects reflect this problem,” says Gümüş. “If you define public space in an exclusive way, you put stress on civil society. Public space should integrate the diversity of society, not seek to mask it.”

Yeşilada makes a similar argument, but from an economic perspective. He believes that the money invested in Turkey’s megaprojects would be better spent investing in education and skills to develop a hi-tech economy and help Turkey escape from the so-called “middle income” trap in which many developing countries become ensnared.

“Building a mosque on top of Çamlıca that can be seen for 20 miles means everyone will remember the building, but not the people who built it, and that’s sad,” he says. “We need to invest in humans, not buildings.”

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