Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

Urban Politics and Pandemic in Turkey

by Utku Balaban, Visiting Associate Professor, Amherst College

Turkish parliament resumes work after 48 days of COVID-19 hiatus, while wearing masks and keeping distance, June 2, 2020; Source TBMM Yasama Faaliyetlerine Başladı; Author
Yildiz Yazicioglu (VOA) via WikiCommons

Therapeutic Effects of the Pandemic

Nowadays, whenever you turn on your TV to watch Turkish news, you hear and see a lot about the pandemic. After all, this is a global crisis and there is nothing extraordinary about the media’s interest in it. What is striking, however, is the scope of the coverage. On the pro-government networks, there is almost always at least one story about the (failure of the) measures taken in the high-income countries; the United States features prominently. 

This is a PR tactic the Islamist government in Turkey uses whenever it mismanages a crisis, as it commonly does. Pro-government media outlets regularly cover stories about the social and political problems in Europe and the United States. Even those in opposition love these stories, because the underlying narrative makes them feel proud of their country. In fact, it is free therapy for their wounded souls, and it is a courtesy of the government ironically responsible for those wounds in the first place. Thus, unsurprisingly, more and more Turkish expats receive calls from their relatives in Turkey, who express their concerns about the health and the wellbeing of their loved ones in the United States and sometimes advise them to return to the safety of their home country. The show goes on.

Albeit, one particular issue overlooked in the pro-government Turkish media’s coverage of the United States is the resistance by the mayors and the governors against President Trump’s acts and discourse about the pandemic, because this ordeal in the United States could remind the Turkish audience of the respective tension between Turkey’s president, R. T. Erdoğan, and the mayors of the three major cities now all governed by the main opposition party. 

The Toxic Competition

Like their counterparts in the United States, the municipalities in Turkey play an important role in the provision of public services. They can levy and collect local taxes. They have their autonomous budget, which is passed by the city assemblies and used by the mayors. Even though the Turkish constitution does not grant political autonomy to individual regions because of the ongoing Kurdish question, the municipalities have enjoyed a relatively broad administrative autonomy at least until recently.

The Islamists governed Istanbul and Ankara for longer than a quarter of a century after 1994. When their party, AKP, the Justice and Development Party, was in charge of these two biggest cities of the country, they exploited these powers, such as levying the local taxes, very effectively to establish an expansive patronage-based social solidarity network. They used this network as a political asset to gradually decimate democracy nationwide. In other words, the municipalities’ (democratic) administrative autonomy was, in this case, instrumental in the construction of an authoritarian rule with urban roots.

Ironically, when the main social democratic opposition party won the elections in the three largest cities in 2019, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara gained access to the same municipality budget that was massively expanded by their Islamist predecessors. Along with Izmir, these two cities together account for thirty percent of Turkey’s population and roughly half of its GDP. The 2019 social transfer budget for Istanbul alone was $200 million, big enough to transfer no less than $2,300 a year to all of the officially designated low-income households of the city (the annual minimum wage is roughly $4,000 in Turkey). Using these resources, the mayors of these cities started well-publicized social transfer programs for those hit by the pandemic-related economic crisis. 

Istanbul Municipality distributes food aid to 50,000 poor families every week as well as $500 annual scholarships to over 30,000 students. The mayor of Ankara announced an “Economic Protection Package” for workers unable to carry on with their normal jobs due to the outbreak. In addition to a new emergency cash support program, the municipality also tripled the scope of its food aid program now covering 150,000 families or approximately ten percent of the city population. AKP has never been successful in Izmir, a stronghold of the main opposition party. Doubling the number of the beneficiaries, the Izmir Municipality provided $60 cash transfers during the month of Ramadan for 40,000 families. 

In contrast to these highly visible steps by the mayors of these cities, the measures taken by the Erdoğan government have mostly failed. Erdoğan’s first economic response was to start an unemployment package that would pay $140 a month to those who lost their jobs during the pandemic for three months. The package was criticized since the monthly payment was only half of the minimum wage. To cope with the country-wide mask shortage, the government first banned the sale of masks and the Ministry of Health began to ship masks to each residential address with postal service. However, the project fell into oblivion, because only a minority of the population were sent masks. Then, angry customers began to attack pharmacists, because people were not allowed to use the public transportation without masks and pharmacists were easy targets for a quick catharsis. Finally, pharmacies were again allowed to sell masks after a month-long ordeal due to Erdoğan’s stubbornness. The real fiasco was, however, the decision of the Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu, to order a two-day curfew in 31 metropolitan areas just two hours before its start. The panic led to violence among people waiting in the long and dense lines to buy the basic groceries. Many people were probably infected that night.

As the poor crisis management of the government put a big dent in his credibility, Erdoğan, the biggest killjoy of modern Turkish history, did what he does best: he changed the rules of the game. Overnight, municipalities governed by the opposition parties were banned from aiding the victims of the pandemic. In return, those municipalities started creative aid campaigns to connect the well-to-do of their cities to the citizens in need. For instance, Ankara Municipality initiated a campaign for the benevolent citizens to pay the monthly tabs of the low-income families at their neighborhood grocery shops; an old and common practice in Turkey’s poor neighborhoods. Erdoğan’s reaction was to accuse these municipalities of “establishing a state within a state” and started his own nationwide “National Solidarity” aid campaign. The biggest donor of Erdoğan’s campaign was ironically the Turkish Central Bank. Many interpreted this unorthodox, if not illegal, cash transfer from one state agency (i.e. the Central Bank) to another (i.e. the Presidency) as an unquestionable sign of the country’s growing financial weakness.

The Déjà Vu

In other words, the pandemic not only revealed the deep political schism in Turkey once again, but also triggered competition between the central government and the municipalities. The question is if these seemingly new terms of politics show us a decisive and viable way to cope with and, if possible, overthrow the non-democratic governments with democratic means and procedures. 

In the Turkish context, the ongoing competition between the three biggest municipalities and his government must be traumatic for Erdoğan especially after he lost both Ankara and Istanbul in 2019, because what is happening now is, in some respects, too similar to his experience in the 1990s when he was elected as the new mayor of Istanbul. Erdoğan was much more than “just a mayor” back then. For his supporters, he was a brave fighter against secular tyranny and the voice of the silenced. He also probably remembers how the 1999 Izmit Earthquake led to the biggest economic crisis of the modern Turkish economy in 2001 and, thereby, facilitated his advent to power the following year. Thus, it is not the first time in the recent Turkish history when the political establishment was challenged by the local governments in the wake of a natural disaster affecting the cities. In fact, Erdoğan’s entire political career, in a sense, bloomed on the death of tens of thousands due to a major natural disaster. Thus, he probably fears that “the municipal resistance” he faces during the current natural disaster could undermine his one-man rule, and thereby determine his political fate.

In other words, the political consequences of the ongoing competition between municipalities and the government could be decisive for Erdoğan’s political career. However, the viability of the municipalities’ resistance strategy in this competition is a particularly tricky issue. By using his executive power, Erdoğan dismissed 40 out of 59 elected mayors of the Kurdish cities within the first few months after the 2019 election and appointed his confidantes to these posts. Thus, the new mayors of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir feel threatened to face the same destiny. In other words, it is still not certain what would happen if the mayors of Turkey’s three biggest cities stepped “out of line.”

Furthermore, even though they finally succeeded in mobilizing their relatively well-to-do electoral base to establish solidarity networks with their low-income and usually conservative citizens during the pandemic, the donors and the beneficiaries have limited direct contact, because the relationship is established with the mediation of the municipalities themselves. In the 1990s, however, the Islamist grassroot movements were in close and personal engagement with the same electorate. Thus, despite its similarities to the 1990s, this historical moment presents bigger challenges for the opposition in two ways. First, it is characterized by a one-man rule that has more power than the governments of the 1990s. Second, there is a much weaker opposition that fails to socially, culturally and emotionally connect with the Islamist electoral base.

Municipal Democracy as the Antidote to Authoritarianism

Authoritarian administrations tend to undermine the autonomy of the cities and the local governments, but the urban governments now adopt a new role in coping with the non-democratic governments. This is also true for the United States, where the most vocal criticisms against the pandemic-related measures of the federal government come from the cities. 

However, the problem in the United States could be more serious than the strongman regime in Turkey, because the presidency of the United States has been slowly but surely expanding its power vis-à-vis the two other branches for more than a century. As the recent impeachment process revealed, the weakness of the legislation vis-à-vis the presidency will make it difficult to reimpose political checks on the future presidents. In other words, it is likely that the checks and balances in the federal government will deteriorate in the years to come. In this context, the Turkish case illustrates that the vision of municipal democracy deserves further discussion, specifically on how to invent the right institutions and traditions in politics in order to reverse or at least stall the centrist tendencies of the authoritarian anti-urban governments.

Utku Balaban is a visiting associate professor at Amherst College’s Anthropology and Sociology Department. He taught at Ankara University until 2017 when the government expelled and blacklisted him along with over thirty colleagues as signatories of the Peace Petition to protest the violence against the Kurdish civilian by government forces in 2015. He pursues his studies on urbanization and industrialization. His current work focuses on the relationship of the late urbanization and industrialization with the rise of Islamism in Turkey.

This piece was a contribution to the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020.

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