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.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak several European leaders have called launching an all-encompassing Marshall Plan-style public investment program to mitigate the economic impact. Turkey was a part of the Marshall Plan as it was automatically considered to be a part of Europe and the Western bloc back in 1951. How about now?
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. he COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.