Erdogan's Grand Construction Projects Are Tearing Istanbul Apart

The last remaining house in an area which is being redeveloped in Fikirtepe on the Asian side of Istanbul. Ivor Prickett/Panos for Newsweek

Late one night in the maze of wooden houses beneath Istanbul’s ancient city walls, an old man rose from his bed, scrawled a suicide note, and gulped down a bottle of pesticide. For months Ismet Hezer had watched his neighbours in the close-knit neighbourhood of Tokludede crumble under intense pressure to sell their homes, which were earmarked to be demolished as part of an ‘urban renewal’ scheme. Residents had been kicked out, and others had sold up at knockdown prices to government-linked developers who told them they would otherwise be nationalised.

Just two days earlier the local authority had sent Hezer a letter threatening that he and his family would be evicted from the house he had owned for 45 years. “They want to take my children’s nest from their hands,” read his spidery script in the note found in his pocket, addressed to a prosecutor.

He singled out the people he blamed for his dilemma: Mustafa Demir, the mayor of the local Fatih Municipality, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish Prime Minister and leader of the Justice and Development party (AKP). “These people are responsible for this death, please do what is necessary,” he wrote.

Tokludede is among a clutch of neighbourhoods on the front line of a ­profit-driven development surge that some fear will tear the heart out of Istanbul’s old city. It also forms part of a wider drive to transform the city, which critics claim is lubricating a system of political patronage that is helping  Erdoğan tighten his grip on Turkey after 11 years in office.

In the coming days, the Turkish premier is widely tipped to entrench his power further by becoming the country’s first directly elected president in polls due on August 10th.

A key plank of his campaign is the $100 billion-worth of infrastructure and development spending currently slated for Istanbul alone. A decade of investment and economic growth has helped turn the city into a vibrant cultural hub with a thriving art and cultural scene, and which was this year named the world’s most popular tourist destination by users of the website Trip Advisor

At a ceremony on July 25th to open a high-speed trainconnecting Istanbul to the capital Ankara, Erdoğan again touted his government's development agenda. He said: “We are now a country which makes its dreams come true.”

Projects include plans to cut down thousands of acres of forest to make way for the world’s largest airport, a road tunnel that will pump traffic into the city’s historic core, and an artificial Bosphorus to run parallel to the original, flanked by 100 square miles of new developments. The government claims the projects are part of an effort to turn Istanbul into a “global city”.

Critics counter that it will irreversibly damage its cultural heritage and transform it into a polluted, water-starved megalopolis. “This is being done in the name of modernisation, but the truth is that Istanbul’s history and also its future is being destroyed,” says Mücella Yapici, head of the city’s Chamber of Architects. “It’s being done at such a pace that it’s impossible for the city to resist.”

Last December, two years after Hezer penned his suicide note, his plea to a prosecutor seemed prophetic. Demir was arrested, as both he, Erdoğan and many other key players in Istanbul’s development boom became embroiled in the largest corruption scandal in ­Turkey’s history.

On December 17th, along with other officials at Fatih Municipality, which covers Istanbul’s touristic centre, Demir was held on allegations he illegally awarded construction permits. Erdoğan himself was accused of forcing a group of businessmen – part of a consortium that had won the tender to build the airport ­– to raise $450m to buy a failing media group, ensuring it remained in government-friendly hands. In return, the group were to be rewarded with ­construction contracts.

Other investigations alleged corruption and bribery between government officials and developers in other projects around Istanbul. In a series of tapped phone calls supposedly held on the day of the first arrests and later leaked online, voices alleged to be those of Erdoğan and Bilal were heard discussing how to dispose of tens of millions of dollars hidden in their homes.

A spokesman for the prime minister did not respond to questions sent by Newsweek regarding the allegations, and the outsized role the prime minister allegedly plays in development projects. Questions to Fatih Municipality regarding alleged corruption there also went unanswered.

In public statements, the government claims that the investigations amounted to an attempt at a coup d’etat by a religious movement long-allied to Erdoğan and with deep roots in the judiciary and police. “It is highly likely that an illegal group within the judiciary could manipulate some facts by laying plots, and use them for their own benefit,” says Osman Can, a retired rapporteur to Turkey's Constitutional Court and a member of the AKP’s central committee.

Critics, while generally not disputing that the investigations were politically motivated, claim that they none the less exposed an organised system of construction-based corruption geared towards cementing Erdoğan’s political power. “The government is using the construction and real-estate sectors to build a financial castle to secure its future,” claims Aykut Erdoğdu, an opposition member of parliament.