Will the metropolis be the savior that rescues politics from populism? 

Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? And if, in other cases, if populist movements are not in power, can local governments create a viable alternative against the rise of populist movements? 

Just as Turkey once created the trend of endorsing larger-than-life populist leaders, it may now be creating the trend of endorsing the antidote to such populism. After the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality elections were repeated and won by Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu in June — and it really is a big deal to win the “golden apple” of Turkey — naturally, the new mayor seems to be the number one challenger to the domestic trend of populism. İmamoğlu went against the populist trend and won. But he was hardly alone: various polls indicate that in the summer of 2019, three of the five most popular politicians in Turkey were the newly-elected opposition mayors. Indeed, İmamoğlu scored a first by overtaking President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the first time in the last 15 years as the most popular politician in Turkey. But in my view, it was even more impressive that the new mayors, Mansur Yavaş in Ankara and Tunç Soyer in Izmir, were ranked as the third- and fourth-most popular politicians respectively.

Yavaş has a nationalist background with roots in the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and he was the joint candidate for the opposition in the race for the capital of Ankara in the March 31 local elections. Yavaş swung back and forth between the MHP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) from 2016 to 2018, but he did somehow manage to outgrow his identity crisis and indecision between the two parties and ultimately succeeded. Four months after winning Ankara with 50% support in the March 31 elections, Yavaş garnered the support of 66% of Ankara electorate. 

In case of Izmir, the new mayor Tunç Soyer raised his level of support to around 80% of the electorate after winning 58% of the vote in the March 31 local elections. As a quintessential secularist from Izmir, looking as “non-traditional and non-nationalist” as it gets, from raising the rainbow flag in support of LGBTQ people to raising the issue as to whether Northern Cyprus should be left to its own devices politically, Soyer is “atypical” when it comes to popular leadership in Turkey. But Soyer did challenge someone who is his polar opposite, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, for the position of fourth most popular politician in Turkey.

Recently, Prague-based journalist Tim Gosling penned an article titled “Europe’s Populist Governments Have a Problem: Their Capitals.” Gosling contended that “city-level opposition could be the key to defeating populism in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and beyond.”

Just like Gosling, in the same time frame, I was reflecting on the very same topic. 

He pointed out that “the rise of populist, nationalist governments in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have made these countries, the Visegrad Group, the black sheep of Europe. But their capitals—Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and Bratislava—could offer a platform from which to challenge populism at the city level. Opposition mayors now run all four cities.”

Gosling went on to argue, “Warsaw’s new mayor Rafal Trzaskowski is a former minister from the center-right Civic Platform, Matus Vallo runs Bratislava at the head of a team of independent technocrats, and Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib is an activist physician from the upstart, anti-establishment Pirate Party.” What’s more, Budapest’s joint opposition candidate Gergely Karácsony, whose background is in green and liberal politics, made Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán suffer his first significant political defeat in a decade on October 14 when his ruling Fidesz party lost control of Budapest. 

Previously in 2018, opposition candidate Péter Márki-Zay won the Orbán and Fidesz stronghold town of Hódmezővásárhely with almost 58% support — a victory repeated again in the new local elections.

I remember back in August, while I was in Budapest revisiting my “other hometown” where I lived for more than a decade, I came across the news of Karácsony’s visit to İmamoğlu’s office in Istanbul in which he asked for advice concerning the upcoming local elections in Hungary. Budapest’s new mayor reflected on that meeting at his recent Euronews interview:

“I was given important advice from the mayor of Istanbul. His main message was that my politics should be built on the people, not based on party politics and rivalry for power. He emphasized in his campaign and also after his election as mayor, that his strength in the face of a very strong power is invincible because it is not his strength, it is the strength of the city. I wanted to represent this politics in my campaign, and I think I have succeeded. My success, which was surprising for many, was not due to my excellent campaign or my personality, nor due to the opposition parties. This victory was due to a policy of trying to involve people more in decision-making. I think nowadays representative democracy is facing a very serious challenge globally. Some people say if representative democracy is in trouble, you should choose heavy-handed leaders who tell you what you need and protect you from danger…The correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”

All these aforementioned politicians overcame the invincibility of “populism in power.” All except for Yavaş and Soyer were born in the 1970’s or the 1980’s; besides age, they are all united in being open-minded in their work in their cities and in promising to overcome polarization making political work equal for the entirety of the city. 

One part of the story is when populism is actually governing as the “central power,” as in the case of Hungary, Poland and Turkey. But there is another part of the story, too. Populism may compete to be the governing power in some cases, and local power may block that goal ideologically and electorally. On November 11, for the first time in Germany, a German with immigrant parents was elected mayor of a state capital: the Greens’ Belit Onay won the Hannover elections with almost 53% of the vote. 

It’s often been said that populism offers simple solutions to complex problems.

So, are we really debating the success of local politicians, or once again the yearning of the local electorate for simple solutions for complex problems — only this time, with them reaching out to much more accountable, attainable, “touchable” politicians?

As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”

Maybe it is not about combating the rise of populism, but recreating representative democracy — first in the City, and then in the rest of the political sphere as well.