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Echoes of the past in Istanbul’s mayorial race

The pre-election narrative all sounds so familiar: corruption allegations, massive building projects, destruction of historic districts, new hotels, environmentalist protests, a sea of concrete suffocating the city, and evergreen hopes of one day hosting the Olympics – some elements of this article I wrote in 1989 to raise the curtain on municipal elections in Istanbul 25 years ago seem strangely familiar to the discussions ahead of Turkey’s mayorial races on March 30. 

The city is aflutter with election flags again and there are other, more political, similarities. Bedrettin Dalan, standing for re-election in 1989, was part and parcel of the regime of the late Turkish leader Turgut Özal, who after six years in power was stumbling with accusations of corruption and authoritarian tendencies. The current Turkish leader, Tayyip Erdogan, 11 years in power, is fighting back against the same kind of accusations, even though the scale of everything involved seems to have multiplied many times.

Kadir Topbaş, the faithful old pro-Islamic party member to whom Erdogan has entrusted the city since 2009, is lower-profile than Dalan. His ruling AKP expects to win, even if they do not share the cast-iron confidence displayed by the Motherland Party that 70 per cent of the vote was in their pocket. Back in 1989, Dalan was so sure he’d win that he filled the municipality entrance hall with tables groaning under a slap-up celebratory feast. When I passed by on election night, nobody had come to the party.

The end of the story has not been happy for the ex-mayor. Since 2008, Dalan has bounced about in exile between Russia, Holland, Belarus and the U.S., running from a charge sheet of “terrorist” activities filled out against him at home. He tells newspapers that he longs to return to his home city.

Istanbul – Hustling Capital of Ozal’s Turkey

By Hugh Pope

Istanbul, Reuters_Few people boast about what they have destroyed, but Istanbul Mayor Bedrettin Dalan says it with pride: 10,000 buildings in just five years.

“We virtually had to recreate the city,” Said Dalan, Mayor since 1984. “Over 620 factories and 400,000 people were also moved. I think it is unique in world urban history.”

A new Istanbul born under Dalan symbolises the kind of energy released in Turkey since Prime Minister Turgut Ozal’s centre-right Motherland party came to power in 1983.

One million new homes are under construction with state aid, dozens of arterial roads have been opened and enough pipes to supply a town of 50,000 with water are laid each month.

Alongside Dalan’s efforts, non-municipal facilities have changed out of recognition: telephones, hopeless five years ago, now work well and power cuts are the exception, not the rule.

The price has been high. The once-green hills beside the Bosphorus waterway are now a sea of concrete, traffic clogs city streets and the fabled skyline of minarets and mosques is frequently blotted out by sulphurous smog.

“The only planning has been Dalan’s imagination,” said Celik Gulersoy, head of the semi-official Turing Club, which has lovingly restored at least 20 of the most striking relics of the former capital of the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires.

“This is a 3,000-year-old city, not an American desert,” he said, adding that recent road projects were like “running a motorway down the Grand Canal in Venice.”

Gulersoy is Dalan’s chief independent critic, but Istanbul’s marginal Greens Party has also attacked Dalan as a “King who was destroying the city without consulting the people.”

Dalan says dislocation is inevitable in a city whose infrastructure was almost totally neglected as its population grew from about 1.4 million in 1960 to 7.0 million today.

Under Dalan, Istanbul now has new main vegetable markets, a large bus station complex nearly ready and the sewage system, neglected since Byzantium times 500 years ago, is being totally rebuilt and designed with World Bank support.

One monument to Dalan's rule in Istanbul is his replacement of the decayed Ottoman-era Galata Bridge with an unlovely  structure that has now put two great steel blocks in every picture of the Golden Horn skyline.

One monument to Dalan’s rule in Istanbul is his replacement of the decayed Ottoman-era Galata Bridge with an unlovely structure that has now put two great steel blocks in every picture of the Golden Horn skyline.

As part of a controversial program to move colourful, traditional small tradesman out of the historic centre, a huge structure with 5,000 shops is near completion outside town.

Children’s parks have taken the place of many polluting workshops along the banks of the Gold Horn sea inlet and line the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea shores as well.

Much of the changes have been made possible by new laws freeing municipal finances. Dalan, whose taste for foreign projects has made him popular in foreign capitals, has already run up at least 530 million dollars of foreign debt.

Ozal and Dalan are still thinking ahead and have laid down foundations for an Olympic stadium to boost Istanbul’s chances of hosting the Olympic games in the year 2000.

A dream that Istanbul can recapture its former place as a gateway from Europe to the Middle East is also being pursued with a 3/4-billion dollar work trade centre and a third terminal for Istanbul Airport, already Turkey’s busiest.

Part of the first metro to be built in Istanbul since 1869 is about to be opened, despite controversy about the route and expense, and fifteen first-class hotels are under construction in a city that until recently had only five.

“In the summer it’s dust and in the winder it’s mud,” admitted Dalan. Municipality statistics show much remains to be done – half of Istanbul’s streets are still dirt tracks.

Opinion polls say Istanbul appreciates the efforts of Dalan, a 48-year-old engineer-industrialist whose eye for publicity may stem from a past job lighting fashion-show catwalks.

He is likely to win 70 per cent of the vote in next month’s local elections, the polls say, making him Turkey’s most popular politician and likely future candidate for one for the top posts in the political capital, Ankara.

Under Dalan, Istanbul has reasserted its claim to lead commercial life – double the size of Ankara, it produces a quarter of Turkey’s goods, owns a third of the cars, controls two-thirds of foreign trade and is home to most banks.

The yachts of the city’s new rich lie anchored near the few remaining wooden summer houses along the Bosphorus, contrasting with the lot of many forced to work on two jobs to keep pace with the galloping cost of living.

But imbalances of wealth are just one of the many striking contrasts in Istanbul, where 1940s U.S. Limousines work as taxis beside the sleek European luxury cars, and images of the 20th century co-exist with medieval buildings and lifestyles.

In fact, the groundswell of Dalan’s support comes from the mass of poor immigrants from the Turkish hinterland. Dalan first arrived in the city penniless, aged 17, and he represents many of the immigrant’s aspirations

To cement the alliance, Dalan has looked after most vote-rich Gecekondu (built-overnight) squatter settlements, building amenities and handing out 250,000 title deeds to inhabitants.

Critics say the urbanisation should be stemmed – 90 per cent of inhabitants may now be first-generation – but Dalan said: “We are a democratic country, we cannot stop it.”

The wholescale reshaping of Istanbul and accompanying speculative opportunities have brought Dalan many enemies and death threats, but he said he was not afraid to continue.

While the overwhelming complain of the people centres on grim hours spent in polluted traffic jams, Dalan said his main achievement was to show that change was possible.

“When I became Mayor of Istanbul, the problems were thought to be insoluble in the minds of the people,” Dalan said, “Now people think Istanbul can become nicer and easier than before.”

Yigal Schleifer's picture of urban renewal, Istanbul style - click for link to his blog.

Yigal Schleifer’s picture of urban renewal, Istanbul style – click for link to his blog on staying one step ahead of the wrecking ball.


AKP got some things right - the new metro is a huge boon to Istanbul and the new bridge of the Golden Horn with a station in the middle has a certain élan. (AKP isn't responsible for the route of the metro, which arguably should have avoided interfering with the Golden Horn skyline altogether).

AKP got some things right – new metro lines have been a huge boon to Istanbul and the new bridge of the Golden Horn with a station in the middle has a certain élan. (AKP wasn’t responsible for choosing the route of this metro line, which arguably should have avoided the Golden Horn altogether and I think was decided in Dalan’s time too).

About Hugh Pope

Writer of books on Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia. Currently Director of Communications & Outreach for International Crisis Group.


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