Istanbul: The Other Name For The Approaching Big Political Fight?

Istanbul is one of the oldest cities in the world, but it is also the heart of Turkey. For centuries it was the capital of succeeding western and eastern empires and had a highly cosmopolitan social fabric. Now, it is the demographic, economic, cultural and political center of the country. Starting from the 1950s, the city has been attracting waves of migrants from Anatolia in search of better prospects. According to 2011 figures, 13.6 million people live in Istanbul, producing much of the national economic output. The city’s voters have also been decisive in the national political system and political competition, especially from the 1980s onward.

Despite its historical and symbolic importance, daily life in Istanbul presents multiple serious issues for those living there. Thanks to the constant flow of migrants and the short-sightedness of decision makers, the city is one of the most uneven and unplanned urban spaces in the region. The high risk of natural disaster, environmental degradation, perpetual traffic congestion, patchily dispersed shanty houses expensive accommodation, and widespread social exclusion all worsen the quality of life and wellbeing of its residents, while undermining its economic efficiency. Improving conditions and solving urban structural problems has always required bold political decisions, the serious use of resources, and macro-level planning by both central and local authorities. However, populist political approaches and the strong local patronage system have not delivered what this natural cosmopolis deserves.

Moreover, the highly centralized, complex and fragmented governing system worsens the capacity of public intervention. At the provincial level, the metropolitan municipality, ministerial directorates, special provincial administrations and the newly established Regional Development Agency have overlapping responsibilities. The lack of coordination and institutional competition leaves huge gaps in the delivery of democratic and efficient public policy. The 2005 Public Administration Reform has failed to make this system more participatory, transparent, accountable, coherent and efficient. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has not enforced the implementation of these governing principles. The issue of decentralization is not even on the political agenda at all, as it is still considered as being within the security policy area.

Ironically, the birth of AKP and its founding leader’s political career can be traced firmly back to Istanbul. In March 1994, when the Welfare Party’s candidate Recep Tayyip ErdoÛan won the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality election, the elites and urban middle classes were in shock, seeing this as only a temporary ÒexceptionalÓ situation. Over the years, history took a different path. Taking into account previous mistakes and corruption claims, Mayor ErdoÛan and his team adapted a long-term and pragmatic political strategy in governing the city. Consequently, Istanbul created a new political actor for Turkey and the global political community.

Perhaps we may see a similar story written for Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Although Kilicdaroglu failed to win the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality election as a candidate in 2009, as the leader of CHP he now considers the coming local elections as his most important political aim and a priority for his party and supporters. In recognition of the political danger, Prime Minister ErdoÛan is likely to nominate some of his current cabinet members as candidates for the next local elections. It is sure that we are going to see a real political fight taking place over Istanbul.

Different groups are now considering supporting CHP in its fight to win the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. ÒConcernedÓ social liberals, secular republican patriots, socialists, and even some pro-Kurdish voters see the election as an instrument to tear down the AKP’s stifling hegemony. Now, the biggest question remains to be answered: How?

Will CHP adopt a populist approach and rely on a charismatic candidate with an eye on dissident votes, or will it take a pragmatic and rational approach with a new urban vision, better policy alternatives, and feasible projects to attract votes. Residents are unlikely to vote only on the basis of rational calculations over the proposed election promises of the two parties. The performance of political leaders, their campaigning styles, their members’ support, as well as national trends and atmosphere will all be influential, if not decisive.

However, Turkish society is also changing along with the world. More and more urban citizens are realizing that populist patronage politics comes with great costs. Better and faster transportation, safe and affordable accommodation, and the transparent and efficient use of public resources, would allow them to live better and more happily. Perhaps more importantly, even if not openly expressed by voters, people really want to have a say in the future of their daily lives. Therefore, the single strategy of populism is slowly approaching its expiry date. Considering this seriously, CHP and other opposition groups should make their plans accordingly. In the end, a game is always better for everyone if the competing teams play with quality and better skills. Maybe, an answer to the question of ÒHow?Ó can be found through more democracy, efficiency, and political innovation.