Skip to main content

Rezoning of Istanbul islands raises concerns of AKP meddling

A presidential decree has transferred zoning control of Istanbul’s opposition-run Princes’ Islands to the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, raising concerns of anti-democratic practices by Turkey’s ruling party.
A horse drawn carriage passes by in a street on the island of Buyukada off Istanbul on Nov. 29, 2019.

ISTANBUL — In a presidential decree published late Thursday, Istanbul’s opposition-held Princes’ Islands were designated as an “environmental protection area,” transferring the management of zoning rights there to Ankara’s Ministry of Environment and Urbanization.

Presented as an environmental policy to mitigate further ecological degradation in the Marmara Sea, where the islands are situated just south of Istanbul, the move raised concerns of anti-democratic overreach by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been accused of meddling in multiple opposition-run municipalities in recent years.

Since losing control of Istanbul’s city government to Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the 2019 local elections, democracy advocates say Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP has chipped away at the municipality’s jurisdiction, seizing governing powers in some areas while diverting tourism revenues generated in others and also blocking municipal projects like discount bread kiosks in certain districts.

“This is something the government has been doing quite systematically since 2019,” Berk Esen, an assistant professor of political science at Sabanci University, told Al-Monitor.

Particularly in Istanbul, Esen said Ankara has been “pushing hard” to limit the jurisdiction of the municipal government, not only for political motives in the run-up to general elections expected in June 2023, but also to nullify opposition to the large construction projects that remain vital to the AKP as an avenue for revenue generation and to boost Turkey’s economic activity.

In one high-profile instance in 2020, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture took over the management of Istanbul’s iconic Galata Tower, redirecting tourism revenues to Ankara while awarding a renovation project to an AKP-friendly construction company.

“It’s also done, I think, to limit the cash flow to the municipality,” Esen told Al-Monitor. “I mean Galata Tower, some other areas they’ve taken over, they generate money. So by doing this they are restraining the financial ability of the municipality government to undertake their own projects.”

In districts where members of the pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won the 2019 municipal elections, the AKP has also overseen the replacement of dozens of elected officials with government-appointed trustees in recent years, arresting or detaining thousands of HDP members on terror-related charges.

Concerning the Princes’ Islands, whose residents tend to vote for the CHP, Oya Ozarslan, a Transparency International board member and founding chair for the organization’s Turkey branch, said last week’s decree was another “infringement of local governments’ rights” that have been seized “one by one and very selectively.”

“It is clear the central government run by the AKP is concerned about losing power after the local elections of 2019 and is trying to seize that power through these decrees, but it is surely an undemocratic way,” Ozarslan told Al-Monitor.

She added that Ankara’s ongoing encroachment on municipal jurisdictions is concentrating power under the central government and further away from constituencies and elected representatives, decreasing accountability for decision-makers who are far removed from local oversight.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee Thursday, Environment and Urbanization Minister Murat Kurum said the Marmara Sea rezoning plan would help the body of water recover from a “sea snot” or a bacterial mucilage bloom that clogged fishing nets this spring and raised concerns for lasting ecological damage in the region.

In addition to local pollution and rising global temperatures caused by climate change, Kurum said untreated water discharged from urban areas likely fed the sea snot bloom, saying only 46% of wastewater in the Marmara region undergoes advanced treatment.

“Let us speed up the upgrade of waste treatment facilities across Marmara,” Kurum said Thursday. “We need to implement all structural changes within the next three years.”

In a Twitter thread posted Friday, Gurkan Akgun, head of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s Zoning and Urban Planning Department, criticized the transfer of authority to the Environmental and Urbanization Ministry, saying it sought to override municipal development plans while opening the islands to the overdevelopment and deforestation seen in other parts of Istanbul in recent decades.

“The protection of the Marmara Sea is extremely vital!” Akgun tweeted. “But it is not the islands that pollute the Marmara Sea."

The ministry's own plans for the islands remain to be seen, but Esen said the ongoing infringements on municipal jurisdictions by Ankara’s central government will continue to weaken opposition officials, who have few “tools at their disposal” to counter such moves.

“When it’s only a jurisdictional change, it’s difficult to even educate voters that there was such a change,” Esen told Al-Monitor.

Esen said that through such decrees, Ankara’s message could be read as: “If Erdogan wins, or his party wins, that’s fine. But if the opposition wins, then basically the jurisdiction of these governments will be limited to such an extent that the outcome of an election will not amount to much.”

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Turkey Briefing Turkey Briefing

Turkey Briefing

Top Turkey stories in your inbox each week

Trend Reports

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

From roads to routers: The future of China-Middle East connectivity

A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29, 2018. - On March 27, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulations on Middle East renewable energy industry starting to take shape

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial