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Unpacking the 2023 Turkish election’s implications for environmental policy: time for a path change?

The May 2023 Turkish election sparked a nationwide discussion about its potential influence on Türkiye’s environmental agenda. This perspective delves into the nuances of the election and its potential to transform Türkiye’s environmental policies.

Javad Keypour / Published on 21 June 2023

Open coal mine in Turkey. Photo: canerozkan/ Getty Images

In Türkiye, environmental issues have often been overshadowed by more immediate concerns, such as economic stability, political conflicts, refugee crises and recent earthquake relief efforts. As a result, environmental protection and sustainable practices have, until recently, been overlooked by not only the ruling and opposition parties, but also by the Turkish Green Left Party (YSP), which places green policies at the forefront of its agenda. However, the recent election has shed light on environmental issues and brought them into the political landscape. 

The Turkish government, led by President Erdoğan, ratified the Paris Agreement in late 2021 and sought to generate publicity for two environmental initiatives: the “Black Sea Region Climate Action Plan” and the “Zero Waste Project“, championed by the president’s wife Emine. The government initiated these efforts, at least in part, to appeal to the youth, position the administration as progressive and responsible, and potentially influence the electoral outcome. In line with this logic, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the main opposition candidate for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), pledged to establish a Ministry of Climate staffed by young experts to engage the younger demographic. However, the question arises: do these environmental commitments indicate a turning point for environmental politics in Türkiye? The answer is not a straightforward one.

The dissonance between Türkiye’s mega-projects, strategic interests and environmental concerns

Türkiye’s ruling government is known for its ambitious infrastructure projects, such as dams, nuclear power plants, international airport, and mining and industrial facilities. These projects are not only economically or tourism-driven, but they also serve as potent symbols of national strength, helping position Türkiye on the global stage. For instance, the Istanbul Canal project, despite substantial environmental backlash and opposition from Istanbul’s major Ekrem İmamoğlu (CHP), is still promoted as a strategic undertaking. The government contends that the project holds strategic significance as it could potentially allow Türkiye to bypass the Montreux Convention, thus gaining greater control over military vessel passages from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Another instance of this dissonance was seen in the 2021 İkizdere mining activities. Despite local protests highlighting the environmental hazards of stone extraction – such as damage to water resources, biodiversity and agriculture – the mining operations continued, and even portions of the villagers’ lands were expropriated to facilitate the project. This demonstrates the government’s tendency to prioritize economic and strategic goals over environmental concerns.

The rise of environmental awareness in Türkiye’s metropolitan areas can trigger conflict

In metropolitan regions like Ankara and Istanbul, environmental issues are increasingly gaining traction, particularly among younger residents. Istanbul, in particular, has been actively engaging in environmental and climate discussions, owing to its geographical proximity to Europe and its cultural and tourist exchanges with other regions. The city, with a population exceeding 15 million, faces numerous environmental challenges, including a scarcity of extensive green spaces and promenades. In this context, even minor decisions with environmental implications can ignite significant public reactions. This was evident during the 2013 Taksim Gezi Park protests, which were triggered by the planned demolition of the park and led to clashes between Turkish police and protestors. In such a highly politicized environment, governmental decisions – including environmental ones – become platforms for expressing opposition and potential conflict with the ruling party, providing a pretext for the suppression of environmentally critical protests.

Türkiye’s reliance on energy imports limits the transition to renewables 

A significant factor influencing Türkiye’s environmental and climate conditions is its heavy reliance on imported energy. The nation’s economic situation and high energy consumption have so far prevented a meaningful shift from imported fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. In response, the government has pursued policies to stabilize energy prices and enhance energy security, which include maximizing the use of domestic coal resources, even if this approach may have adverse environmental implications.

These strategies, particularly appealing to lower-income social groups, are set to continue. It is important to note that the commitment to domestic energy sources, including coal, is a shared emphasis for both the ruling party and the main opposition party, the CHP. Equally, the Erdoğan administration has defended the construction of large dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as crucial for Türkiye’s water resource management, power generation and economic growth plans. These plans have stirred tensions with neighbouring countries such as Iraq, Iran and Syria, and have been criticized for their environmental impact. It seems that Türkiye’s resource constraints continue to drive current practices, regardless of the party in power and despite environmental consequences.  

What might the future hold? 

Even if Kılıçdaroğlu had become president and realized his vision of establishing a Ministry of Climate, it is likely that Türkiye’s environmental policies would have seen only symbolic changes. These changes could serve as a brief display of policy divergence from the previous administration, while other issues might take precedence eventually. Kılıçdaroğlu could also have ushered in changes favouring a European Union-oriented approach, potentially influencing Türkiye’s dealings with Russian nuclear power plant providers. 

In the same vein, changes in sectors like agriculture could impact the environment, but such effects would be gradual and influenced by external factors. With Erdoğan commencing his final term as president, current indications suggest that the Turkish government will maintain its course, making only minor changes to its environmental policies. While occasional symbolic gestures or tactical concessions may draw attention to the environmental issues, the focus on large-scale projects that align with the government’s economic and strategic interests is expected to continue. 

Author’s comment:

I express my gratitude to Izzet Yalin Youksel for the invaluable insights provided in the development of this note.

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