Interview. We interviewed the Turkish journalist Murat Cinar about the new dynamics in Istanbul after the CHP confirmed its grip on the mayor’s office. Transparency ‘was an important part of Imamoglu’s message, and it brought great fear among those in Erdogan’s family.’

Immoglu imperils the AKP’s penchant secret tenders for major works

Murat Cinar is a Turkish journalist who has been writing about the large public works policy of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the wake of the second election restoring Ekrem Immoglu as mayor of Istanbul, we asked him about what the transfer of power from AKP to CHP rule will mean for the city and the country.

Istanbul’s central importance is not only political, but also economic. What is now at stake in the city on the Bosphorus?

The stakes are still very high. The large public works have only been partly implemented, because they involve the participation of the Ministry of Infrastructure: they are not 100% municipal, but also have funding from the national budget. They include a bridge over the Bosphorus, a tunnel under the Bosphorus, the third airport, the largest courthouse in the Middle East—and also roads, bridges, large interchanges. Some of the contracts have already been assigned, but other projects have not yet reached the public tender stage. 

There are many issues surrounding this policy: first of all, the same five companies [Limak Holding, Cengiz Holding, Kolin, Kalyon and MNG Holding] are always given a preferential slice of the pie, and second, the estimated costs for the works are higher than the real costs. Third, there is the issue of quality: many projects which were implemented were not actually needed, or have been poorly built—such as the pedestrian bridge over a highway which collapsed and killed five people, or the high-speed train built on German tracks from the WWII era, which had an accident just five hours after its opening and killed 30 people.

After 25 years of control by Erdogan over Istanbul, could Imamoglu bring to light the irregularities?

This was an important part of Imamoglu’s message, and it brought great fear among those in Erdogan’s family and clique. For instance, Turgev (whose president is Erdogan’s son) and Ensar, which are among the largest foundations in Turkey and are ultra-religious, have contracts in each municipality for summer schools and courses for children. In the 18 days during which Imamoglu was mayor after the March 31 elections, he discovered that the city had bought 28,000 bows from Turgev for the national Ottoman-style archery games. 

Imamoglu has always spoken of transparency and going against this “procurement culture.” Such an approach is unprecedented in Istanbul, where the outgoing government has done everything behind the scenes without involving the population. In those 18 days, Imamoglu live streamed the meetings of the city council, for the first time in Turkey, thus managing to force the former majority to support lowering the price for public transport passes for students. Economic issues matter a lot, especially in a city like Istanbul, which is enormous, rich and expensive, and at the same time inhabited by an army of poor and underpaid workers.

However, the central government is in charge of setting the city’s budget. Could Erdogan boycott the CHP’s projects?

Unlike in Italy, the local authorities in Turkey don’t have a high level of autonomy, and depend on the central government for the education, health and transport budget. In Ankara, the new mayor, Mansur Yavas from the CHP, is already facing this problem: after starting a project devoted to transparency and the denunciation of irregularities, he is having to deal with the government rejecting various policy proposals or returning them for amendments. However, Erdogan could not last long in the face of two strong characters who are working for transparency: if they ask for a particular budget amount for projects and the government refuses, they can reveal the blackmail to everyone.

Are there any projects that Imamoglu could block?

In the case of those for which contracts have been signed, he can’t do much—the judiciary has to intervene. He can, however, obtain evidence of irregularities. For the future, he has already said he will not award public tenders to the same companies and foundations. In the TV debate with Yildirim, he said that there was no need to outsource to foundations as Turgev and Ensar services that the city can provide by itself—from creches to schools—because the obvious risk is that the service will be entrusted to those who are close to those in power, who give money to electoral campaigns or who show support for a certain party in their spaces—starting with the mosques. This is how the AKP has always worked, with religious communities that give out jobs, scholarships and education.

Have some AKP supporters voted for the CHP?

Imamoglu said from the start that he wanted to represent everyone, that he wanted to undermine the idea of ​​the state as one particular party. He said he wanted to be everyone’s leader, without any distinction according to religion, ethnicity or ideology: he said that in his view, Kurds, Armenians, Turks, Syrians and Jews are all equal. It was a risky move, because Turkey is a very polarized society, which has grown up with hatred over the last two decades. But he was right to do so, and he drew some votes from the AKP, which always spoke only in terms of “us vs. them,” attacking Armenians and Kurds, trying to convert the Alevis to Sunni Islam, marginalizing certain communities. The economic crisis also played a part. And, finally, there was the blatant injustice of the March 31 elections: many, including AKP voters, did not accept the annulment of their vote.

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