Former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan considered the National Salvation Party (MSP) he founded as a machine able to organize, in every aspect, the people he had united around a “sacred” cause. The most concrete project of this dream was the idea of the settlement Selametköy in 1975 – called “Salvationville” after his party’s name. Made up of two-story houses, all with a similar design and a yard, and featuring mosques, schools and hospitals, the new city would be away from the degenerating effects of Istanbul’s turbulent social life, but at the same time not too far away physically. It was to be created in the northwest rural area of Istanbul, Arnavutköy. The pro-government paper, Milli Gazete, launched a campaign about it, and hundreds of people flocked to buy a “piece of the sacred lot.” However, the September 12 coup d’état stopped the project.
After the 1994 elections, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the then-newly elected mayor, rolled up his sleeves to actualize his mentor’s dream through the municipality-affiliated company KİPTAŞ. He started building moderate residential complexes at Başakşehir, a more appropriate location where zoning plans had already been done, and used an emblem that resembled that of his part at the time, the Welfare Party (RP). But this time, the February 28 “postmodern coup” happened and a “secular” Onurkent was erected in front of the conservative KİPTAŞ housing blocks.
Then the rest came: The “innovators” within the Welfare Party split and founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and walked into power. As a reflection of the change, each house added to Başakşehir was a luxurious one, evolving into protected residences and villas. The location that was first considered for Salvationville is where Kanal Istanbul is now planned to be built.
As a matter of fact, the ambitious mind that has been working on the extremely profitable scheme in the north of Istanbul was developed through the “sacred lot” cause of the 1970s. All those mega projects that looks meaningless when considered alone — namely the third bridge, the new Istanbul Airport, the North Marmara Highway and Kanal Istanbul — are the evolution of an old dream when thought of all together. With thousands of homes to be built, hotels, hospitals, campuses and a marina, Salvationville turns into Erdoğan City.
At the same time, this is also the neoliberal story of how Turkey’s capitalism and political Islam have evolved. Thus, this conservative ghetto utopia built through a religious solidarity network is now starting to form the economic infrastructure of the new regime. This cannot be explained very well through Erdoğan’s stubbornness alone. None of the projects in the north of Istanbul developed as a result of ambition suddenly reappearing. It was also necessary for the AKP to change the path of Turkey’s capitalism after 2009.
Let me try to explain this political and economic necessity with documents prepared, in fact, by the government.
In 2005, the government commissioned a “Transportation Major Plan Strategy” from a council dominated by experts from Istanbul Technical University. The aim of the plan was to determine the deficiencies within infrastructure in accord with the course of the economy and to meet the needs of the appropriate projects. In the plan prepared in the framework of harmonization with the EU, land, air and sea transportation was assessed and proposals were made that took the targets of European countries into consideration. In the strategy document, it was emphasized that nationwide, reliable and cheap transportation structures should be made available that encouraged mass transportation. Sea transportation and railroads were to be especially prioritized.
The plan called for the recovery of existing roads except for highway projects that were already planned and financed. The policy of “an airport for every city” was an idle investment, it said, as infrastructure plans needed to focus on being “sustainable and environmentally-friendly.”
Well, was this strategy ever applied? The question is meaningless, because the end result is obvious. An answer lies in the plan prepared in 2010.
But before that, let us make a brief reminder: The Kanal İstanbul project was officially announced for the first time before the 2011 elections by Erdoğan. In 2017, a bid was held for the survey of the project. According to the controversial article 21/b of the Procurement Law, the job was given to Yüksel Project for 35 million lira. This company, based on the same article, had won bids before, such as the Marmaray, the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, the Osmangazi Bridge, İstanbul subways, the Ordu-Giresun Airport, and the three-story Great Istanbul Tunnel. Who do you think prepared the 2010 Transportation Master Plan through the direct demand of the government? Of course, Yüksel Project.
The plan prepared in 2010, contrary to the one made in 2005, stated that the center of the global economy was shifting from the west to the east and thus, infrastructure that will make Turkey a center for transit was top priority. The plan claimed that by 2020, a serious surge in demand would be experienced, from the number of vehicles on the highways and on the railroads, to passengers at airports and ships passing through the Bosphorus. To be able to better understand the tone of the report, let me quote this statement from the report, at the start of the section on proposals: “With the assumption that Turkey will not enter the EU, partnerships will be formed with Turkic-speaking countries.” Further on in the report, priority investments were listed, with the most interesting one saying that “at a location 50 kilometers west of Istanbul, a Turkish Channel will be opened to generate income.”
The difference between the two reports is not only due to the change in the political approach of the government. The economic policy between 2002 and 2007 was the Kemal Derviş program, which was anchored to the IMF and the EU. In this period in which fiscal discipline was implemented, the target was integrating into the EU market. On the other hand, the second report was created during an era of major change in Turkey’s economic path. Thanks to cheap loan opportunities provided by the 2008 global crisis, the government seized the opportunity to materialize its new regime vision. A symbiotic relationship was formed between the development model, based on construction, and the presidential regime. However, for this relationship to be productive, it was a must that the mechanisms of the economy be organized in this direction.
This is due to the fact that absolute dominance over resource distribution mechanisms is not enough for a new regime to be implemented: there needs to be intervention into the direction of capital accumulation. Mega projects are an effective way to do this. While public funds are rapidly transferred to desired areas, it also opens the way for rapid change in the destination of capital accumulation.
For this reason, while reviewing Kanal Istanbul, one should also consider the highways, the bridge, the airport, the city of a population of two million around it, the land all across the Thrace region, and the shores that stretch to the Çanakkale Bridge. This locational restructuring has changed, and will change, the axis of Turkey’s economic activity. This is based on the thesis that global commerce will shift to the East, and it has connections to both domestic and foreign policy.
In sum, the case of the sacred parcels of land that started with Salvationville has evolved into a concrete neoliberal project design satisfy the “primitive” accumulation instincts of capital, which is otherwise unable to turn the wheels of the economy today. So as long as easy money is made from it, that land has to be dug.