Turkey's major opposition municipalities fail in pandemic management

It has been two years since the landslide victory of the main opposition CHP in Turkey’s major cities, which was expected to change the country’s socio-political landscape. But have they really made a difference? In Turkey’s three major cities, there were no additional women’s shelters, no meaningful pandemic decisions, and only one effort at pedestrianization. While at the same time, there were 2,261 zoning/development decisions and 5 billion liras of funding allocated for asphalt works.

It has been two years since the local elections on March 31, 2019. The landslide victory of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Turkey’s major cities was expected to change the country’s socio-political landscape. It is time for us to look at the performances of those municipalities which are now led by the CHP. Have they really made a difference? Have they started to introduce color and warmth to the cities?

Let us first focus on those CHP candidates who campaigned saying that they would not do “asphalt-concrete municipalism.” Then focus on the three metropoles that have had an influence on central politics. Finally, we’ll have the opportunity to observe the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) recent local governance practices.

It is not possible to analyze such a huge topic within the framework of a single article; therefore, we will limit our comparisons to three important criteria: We will scrutinize the three big cities’ (i) pandemic policies, (ii) women’s shelter policies with a special attention to the Istanbul Convention, and (iii) asphalt-concrete decisions. Thus, we will have a better understanding of these municipalities’ performances concerning climate change, public health, and gender equality.

Asphalt and concrete municipal works 

Three political actors responded to my appeal before the local elections in 2019: The Felicity Party (SP), and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) announced that they were not going to participate in asphalt-concrete municipalism. Additionally, the candidate for the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality, Mansur Yavaş, used a slogan stating that he was not going to carry out any asphalt-concrete municipalism if he was elected.

The Felicity Party (SP) won 21 municipalities and 295 city council memberships. It could have become a key party in local governance. The SP had the opportunity to set up an exemplary local administration model, keep its promises, and make a difference via certain practices.

Unfortunately, the SP did not do its homework well and could not fulfill its promises.

Similarly, the HDP won three metropolitan, five provincial, 40 district, and 12 sub-district municipalities when the electorate resisted the central government’s appointments of trustees. Additionally, the HDP’s 1,230 city council memberships afforded the party a strong foundation that could have been used to transform local politics. However, the HDP did not transform local policies in a way that would have enabled the party to make good on its promises.

It also failed to come up with the necessary local politics to oppose the central government’s trustees. The HDP called a meeting of its central execution committee (MYK) on the same day that the trustees were appointed. The HDP essentially told the public, “We don’t have a policy.” Thus, their success in municipalities between 2009 and 2014 dwindled fast.

Let us continue to evaluate the performance of the third actor, Mansur Yavaş in Ankara, together with those municipalities of Istanbul and İzmir.

For whom do the big three work?

Istanbul, Ankara, and İzmir have always been determinants in the formation of both local and national politics not only because of their size. Former mayors İsvan, Dalokay, and Alyanak in 1973, and Sözen and Karayalçın in 1989 were the CHP mayors of these cities. The municipalities cited above used to generate communal policies and provide an alternative to the government, they proposed solutions to urban problems instead of being immersed in government quarrels. If our current opposition mayors were as effective as Ahmet İsvan and Vedat Dalokay, our country’s regime would be different.

2020 was the second year in their term for these municipalities and it was a critical year because of the pandemic. We can review this critical year by studying the city councils’ decisions. Such councils are an essential democratic institution and studying their decisions is eye opening.

We can also test such polemics by studying council decisions because city councils are where our future often takes shape.

Let us now look at İzmir’s 1199, İstanbul’s 1370, and Ankara’s 1829 council decisions in 2020 with this approach. The distribution of the total of 4395 decisions shows us the municipalities’ priorities as they indicate their priorities.

The word pandemic/COVID-19 appears three times in İzmir’s city council decisions, 14 times in Ankara’s, and 33 times in Istanbul’s city council decisions. The qualitative situation is worse than these quantitative values. Almost all of these city council decisions pertain either to rental payments or to harmonization with the central government’s regulations. There are no strong political decisions made regarding public health.

In Istanbul, public transportation is made free for all health workers and the pandemic is included in the city health commission’s responsibilities. That is all. Although minor assistance is given to the public, there are almost no policies to combat the pandemic as a public health issue and global pandemic.

Let us now consider a clean-cut criterion like pedestrianization to clarify the scene further.

Pedestrianization during the pandemic

Doctors determined the recommended social distance to be 1.5 meters during the pandemic. As a result, municipalities in New York, Paris, and Athens started pedestrianization programs. This presented a huge opportunity for the three metropolitan municipalities ruled by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). There are examples of pedestrianization like the Sakarya Square (Sakarya Street) in Ankara, the İstiklal Street in Istanbul, and Kıbrıs Şehitleri Avenue in İzmir.

The word pedestrian appears only 10 times in Ankara’s 1,826 council decisions, but there was not a single pedestrianization decision. In Istanbul, the word pedestrian appears twice in the 1,370 decisions, but there’s not a single pedestrianization-based decision. The word pedestrian appears 29 times in İzmir’s 1,199 city council decisions and thankfully, one pedestrianization decision was made; decision number 513.

There is only one ratified pedestrianization decision among the 4,395 city council decisions of our three metropolitan municipalities during the pandemic.

Let us now look at what our three biggest metropolitan municipalities have done during this period.

Women’s shelters

Providing women’s shelters in Turkey is a legal responsibility. According to law, there must be dozens of women's shelters/guesthouses in each of these three mega cities. However, there are only a couple of shelters. As a matter of fact, a total of 32 shelters are functioning with a 703-person capacity in these province and district municipalities.

In 2020, 15 women died in Ankara, 26 in İzmir, and 45 in Istanbul because of male violence. There are nine guesthouses in 32 metropolitan municipalities in Turkey.

We looked into Ankara, İzmir and Istanbul municipal council decisions to see how many of them were related to shelters; While the government was planning to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention in 2020, was the safety of women discussed in any of our municipalities? It was not. In 2020, there were no decisions concerning women’s shelters in the 4,395 decisions made by the metropolitan municipalities of Ankara, İzmir, and Istanbul.

Only for contractors!

Regarding the issues of pedestrianization, women’s shelters, and public health, our municipalities have scored very low. Let us look at their track record on zoning decisions. They have proved their love of construction with 620 decisions on development in İzmir, 680 decisions in Ankara, and 961 decisions in Istanbul. During the outbreak, these three municipalities, via 2,261 development decisions, have turned our municipalities into the zoning offices of the contractors.

As if that was not enough, İzmir made 10 decisions to pave new asphalt, Ankara 34, and Istanbul 35.

Additionally, İzmir allocated 1.3 billion Turkish liras for asphalt, Ankara 1.6 billion, and Istanbul 2.3 billion TL. These three cities alone spent approximately 5 billion liras on asphalt projects during the pandemic instead of focusing on pedestrianization. This is equivalent to half of the money transferred to city hospitals in 2020.

Local governance, AKP style

The Felicity Party (SP), Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş all pledged that they would not be “asphalt and concrete municipalities” during their election campaigns prior to the March 31, 2019 local elections. They were not able to keep these promises. The SP and HDP have their excuses, but it is disappointing that they have not proposed solutions to the issue.

These three metropolitan municipalities, have only worked primarily for the construction contractors despite the climate crisis and pandemic. In 2020, 83 women lost their lives in these three cities. While these femicides were happening, no decision concerning women’s shelters were made during municipal council meetings.

One out of every two decisions made by the metropolitan municipalities of Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir was about construction, which was a gain for contractors and the central government, which collects their taxes. The remaining decisions did not relate to women or pedestrians.

How is this political landscape different from AKP local governance?

Why doesn’t the government care?

Why were no decisions made to open new women’s shelters in these three cities, where a total of 12.5 million women live, when it is a legal obligation? In these cities where 83 women died due to male violence in 2020, why does the government care about the Istanbul Convention?

When we come to pandemic policies, there are some decisions where the pandemic is mentioned, but the contents do not actually cover the pandemic. The pandemic policies of our municipalities consist of aid campaigns. Our municipalities did not attempt to pedestrianize any areas of their cities.

One does not need to be a revolutionary, like Ankara’s mayor between 1973 and 1977, Vedat Dalokay, to see the need for pedestrianization. Even a centre-right municipality can understand that. Three examples are listed below of municipalities in Turkey that decided to pedestrianize certain areas of their cities over the past year:

Kütahya (MHP): Another street was pedestrianized because Cumhuriyet Street, which was previously pedestrianized, was inadequate.

Bilecik (CHP): Two main streets and 6 side streets were pedestrianized by unanimous decision of the city council in November.

Kocaeli (AKP): Kocaeli Metropolitan Municipality pedestrianized Hürriyet Street in September, thus creating a pedestrian zone of 1.5 square kilometers.

There is clearly a fight between the opposition municipalities and the government, but there is also unfortunate harmony. In Turkey’s three major cities, there were no additional women’s shelters, no meaningful pandemic decisions, and only one effort at pedestrianization. While at the same time, there were 2,261 zoning/development decisions and 5 billion liras of funding allocated for asphalt works.