A plan to dig up a park in Istanbul to make way for a shopping mall has been met with protests that have now mushroomed into a major political conflict.
In Taiwan, there have been protests against urban development projects in such places as the Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium, the Wenlin Yuan housing development and Jiangzihcuei (江子翠) in New Taipei City (新北市), where activists are trying to protect trees from being removed.
Given these experiences, the scenes unfolding in Turkey look quite familiar. However, while the situations in the two countries have a lot in common, there are also important differences.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at one time suffered from repression by the military, but after it gained political power, it successfully reined in the military and has prevented it from interfering in politics.
The AKP has won a succession of three general elections, but in recent years, its increasingly authoritarian behavior has made liberals worried and anxious.
For example, authorities have recently started restricting the sale of alcoholic drinks.
Erdogan has declared that women should have at least three children each and last year, the AKP proposed amending the law to tighten restrictions on abortion.
Such moves have led secularists among the public to suspect the AKP of trying to exert religious influence over politics.
In Turkish law, there exists a crime of “insulting Turkey.” After coming into power, the AKP did not abolish the relevant article in the penal code, but amended it to make it more widely applicable.
This has led to many journalists and writers being persecuted. Even Nobel prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk has been prosecuted and fined for this offense.
The intimidating effect of this law can be seen from the fact that most of Turkey’s media has not reported on the demonstrations at all.
Now the AKP wants to amend Turkey’s constitution to replace the Cabinet system led by a prime minister with a presidential one, to allow Erdogan to remain the country’s leader.
There are also factors related to urban planning behind the protests now going on in Turkey. Istanbul’s population has swollen from 4.74 million in 1980 to 14 million people.
Green spaces within Istanbul and forests around it are getting swallowed up by the growing city, putting great stress on the environment.
Cihan Tugal, an associate professor of sociology at University of California, Berkley, says that many of Istanbul’s new residents are migrants from the countryside who have been crowded into the city’s poorest districts.
During the 1980s, the then-governing Motherland Party with its developmental mentality demolished swathes of older buildings to make way for roads. Areas inhabited by these new migrants were the hardest hit.
Ironically, the AKP’s forerunner, the Welfare Party, started out opposing urban renewal. It set up schools in poor districts and organized grassroot opposition to the demolition of houses that made way for development projects.
The party’s urban vision arose from an imagined tradition of Islamic architecture.
It advocated placing mosques at the heart of the city and keeping cities green, with buildings blending with nature and not permitted to be taller than the minarets of the mosques.
Starting out from a voter base in the poor districts, Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, before becoming prime minister in 2002.
During this time, the AKP adjusted its political line, shaking off its radical Islamic image. Although it made a big fuss about religious issues such as women’s headscarves, it dropped its original ideals in relation to urban development.
Istanbul has chopped down woods to build shopping centers and permitted the construction of skyscrapers taller than mosques.
To attract tourists, it has promoted the construction of scenery modeled on the Ottoman Empire.
The government’s current plan to clear away one of the inner city’s few remaining parks is intended not just to build a shopping mall, but also to rebuild the Ottoman barracks that used to stand there.
However, ironically, urban development projects in Istanbul have entailed demolishing many historic buildings.
Once in office, the once-persecuted AKP has used the offense of “insulting Turkey” to counter its opponents.
It is reminiscent of the Democratic Progressive Party, which criticized the Assembly and Parade Act (集會遊行法) when it was in opposition, but employed the same law to keep social movements in check once it was in power.
The Turkish government is demolishing a park on the pretext of restoring Ottoman architecture without consulting the public first.
This kind of maneuver has a great deal in common with the Taipei City Government’s plans for the area occupied by the air force’s General Headquarters now that it has moved elsewhere.
Despite the fact that there are so few green areas in Taipei, the city government has decided to meet the demands of land speculators with a development plan supposedly modeled on Tokyo’s Roppongi district.
Li Shang-jen is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of History and Philology.
Translated by Julian Clegg