ISTANBUL — Turkey’s new Green Party has a blunt message for voters: “Our house is burning. We’ll put out the fire.”
Getting that message across in a conservative society ruled by one party for nearly two decades is an uphill battle. But the founders see a toehold in the grassroots campaigns that have sprouted across Turkey against environmental damage wrought by years of rapid economic growth.
“You can find projects destroying the environment around the country, and each one is being challenged by those communities. The gains have been piecemeal without a comprehensive solution to the problems,” said Emine Özkan, the party’s 27-year-old co-spokeswoman. “What’s lacking is political representation, and that’s where we come in.”
At last month’s launch, the party presented a program echoing those of their European sister parties: a strategy for phasing out coal, a “Green New Deal” to transform the economy, a plan to make agriculture sustainable, a pro-LGBTQ stance and an emphasis on gender equality.
But while tackling the climate crisis might require similar policies across Europe, Turkey’s Greens will have to fight for these changes in a particularly hostile political landscape.
For one thing, the global climate movement has failed to gain traction in Turkey, one of the world’s last holdouts on the Paris Agreement.
Bariş Gençer Baykan, a professor at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University who studies environmental movements, said that for many in Turkey, climate change remains abstract in the face of more pressing threats. More traditional cultural divides, such as religion and nationalism, largely determine how Turks vote, he added.
At the same time, civil society has been stifled. Bans on public demonstrations, government control of media and the judiciary and the jailing of opposition politicians after a failed military coup in 2016 make activism precarious in Turkey, where authorities view environmentalism as a front for extremism.
Police in the western city of Izmir this year warned that people sympathetic to animal rights and environmental causes “are susceptible to becoming terrorists,” and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused his rivals of “portraying terrorists with blood on their hands as ecological heroes.”
A group of activists who joined demonstrations to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park — among the last green spaces in the city center — in 2013 faced life in prison for allegedly attempting to overthrow Erdoğan. They were acquitted in February, but authorities kept one defendant, civil society leader Osman Kavala, behind bars while they dug up new charges, defying a European Court of Human Rights order to free him. He was indicted this month in connection with the failed coup.
But the government’s opponents see chinks in its armor after a motley coalition of Kurds, nationalists, leftists and secularists last year helped opposition mayors snatch control of Istanbul and the capital Ankara for the first time in a quarter of a century.
“The local elections showed us the atmosphere is changing. People are looking for new ways to do politics in a country that is democratic in name only,” said Özkan.
The Greens are just one new party to form since then; others include two that split from the AKP. While polls show their support in the single digits, these parties can exert outsize influence in electoral alliances that major parties must form to draw a majority for their presidential candidate. Even the AKP’s hold on power hinges in part on its alliance with a small ultranationalist party.
“The Greens may be a small party, but it is offering solutions to real problems voters have. The surest vehicle to reach these voters is to join a bloc and shape its program,” said Koray Doğan Urbarlı, Özkan’s co-spokesman.
The problems are serious. Eight of the 10 European cities with the worst air quality were in Turkey, according to 2017 data from the World Health Organization. It’s the main receptacle of Europe’s plastic waste, even though it recycles just 1 percent of its own garbage. Green spaces make up just 2 percent of Istanbul, with public land handed over to construction companies.
Construction underpins the AKP’s growth-at-all-costs strategy that has tripled the economy during its 18 years in power — despite a recent slowdown — and supporters credit Erdoğan with bettering millions of lives with jobs, roads and power plants.
“Matters of health and the environment are always on the back burner as Turkey rapidly develops,” said Baykan. “It’s difficult to stand in the way of projects that create infrastructure or energy that people use.”
On emissions, the picture is no less grim.
Turkey’s carbon footprint has expanded by a third over the last decade, and it is now the world’s 15th biggest emitter, belching out 1 percent of global greenhouse gasses. The country still subsidizes coal; as of last year, fossil fuels made up 88 percent of its energy mix.
Yet it is the only G20 country not to ratify the Paris Agreement, objecting to its classification as a developed economy, which limits climate funds, a senior energy ministry official told reporters last month. Turkey will still “make the utmost efforts” to reduce emissions and increase the share of renewables, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He did not give details on how Turkey plans to achieve this.
Space to grow
While awareness about the global climate crisis is growing, local campaigns in Turkey tend to focus on issues that hit closer to home, including deforestation, dam-building and industrial pollution.
Activists are protesting copper and gold mining in a national park in western Turkey, where extraction licenses have been issued for 79 percent of the area. Villagers are fighting a tourism project and a highway in wild highlands in the eastern Black Sea region. Campaigners have spent years battling plans for the country’s first two nuclear power plants, to be built near earthquake fault lines.
In Istanbul, where activists unsuccessfully fought the razing of swaths of forest for a new airport and another bridge, Erdoğan now wants to build an artificial waterway that would render the city’s European side into an island. Canal Istanbul will obliterate even more forestland, much of the city’s supply of drinking water and marine life in the Sea of Marmara, environmental engineers warn.
These projects are all moving ahead. While some protests have forestalled smaller projects, environmentalists are “winning the battle and losing the war. For every environmental impact assessment that cancels a project, 1,000 are approved. The issue is these movements don’t affect the legislative process,” said Baykan, the academic.
That’s why, he said, “they need representation in parliament [to] change laws.”
Baykan thinks that the Greens, whose founders average in age between 25 and 35, can draw young urban voters disenchanted with the identity politics of the country’s main parties.
There’s been previous attempts. This new party is the third iteration of a green party in Turkey, with previous groups faltering over administrative missteps and infighting.
The last one — known as the Green Left Party — joined the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) umbrella to contest a 2015 general election. The leaders of that party are on trial for criticizing a Turkish military operation.
The HDP, which pushes for environmental protections, has seen its broader left-wing agenda crippled after the government stripped lawmakers of their seats and purged almost all of its mayors over accusations it serves as a political wing for Kurdish militants, which the party denies.
Turkey’s Greens know they are not immune to such pressure. But with green parties ascendant across Europe, they believe the time is ripe.
“The government reacts harshly to environmental movements because they are something we can all unify around. That is a danger,” said Özkan. “At the same time, it creates an opening for us to draw different kinds of voters who want a future on this planet.”
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