The City of Resilience: Istanbul

The Founder of Equality, Justice, Women Platform Gülseren Onanç, together with academics Soli Özel and Nora Fisher-Onar, participated in a roundtable discussion organized by the Center for American Progress, a US based think tank on the theme of “Cities as an Antidote to Populism? The Case of Istanbul”. In her speech titled The City of Resilience: Istanbul, Onanç evaluated Istanbul’s relation to politics as a city in the context of the last local elections.


Gülseren Onanç

I was born in Mardin, an ancient city of Turkey on the border with Syria. My family migrated to Istanbul when I was four and I grew up in Istanbul.

Mardin is a mosaic city, where Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Syrians, Muslims and Christians coexist side by side. One could hear Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish on one small street. If one were missing, the other would not be complete. Mardin tells the story of civilization. Istanbul, on the other hand, is a city of today and future with its cosmopolitan structure, economic dynamics, living culture, resistance and chaos.

I feel myself both Mardinite and İstanbulite and I am very privileged and fortunate for it.

Thinking about cities and their relations with politics, I realized that one of the most powerful antidotes to populism is the “city.” Especially in cities constructing a positive, inclusive and pluralist vision of the future, populist leaders peddle fear of the “other”, close borders, build walls or polarize societies. Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford argues that “Cities are the vanguard of the global cosmopolis, with people from everywhere – every faith, language, culture – living and working cheek by jowl, the stereotypes of the ‘Other’ peddled by populism are refuted by everyday experience.”

I think, the city is a reflection of man/woman and a woman is a reflection of the city.

Istanbul with 16 million population received immigrants coming from all over Turkey searching for better life in the city. Istanbul is a dynamic, pluralist, inclusive and cosmopolite city. Istanbul symbolizes individualism, entrepreneurship, change, bottom up democracy and disobedience. Istanbul is a self-confident city that grasps her fate in her own hands.

It is not a coincidence that Gezi protests erupted in Istanbul. Taksim has been the meeting place of organized masses that demand rights, equality and justice for years. Istanbul is the center of those seeking democracy, demanding justice. Istiklal Street, where my office is, is the heart of Istanbul, where you would see the new face of Istanbul consisting of Syrians immigrants along side with young students. Istiklal means arts, entertainment, meze houses (meyhane) day life and nightlife.

İstanbul has the highest number of NGO in Turkey. According to statistics of Ministry of Interior, 23.845 active associations are located in Istanbul.

Istanbul alone, make up one-third of Turkey’s economy, that is equal to half of its exports (85 billion dollars). Istanbul, which makes up 18% of Turkey’s population with its 16 million inhabitants, 32% of its GDP, 36% of its industries, 36% of its services, is a city that carries Turkey on her back. Istanbul is home to many Turkish technology startups which have become global success stories.

This city could not have sat back and watched Turkey’s slide towards authoritarianism and economic collapse. İstanbul is getting ready to change Turkey’s destiny.

The result of Turkey’s March 31st local elections are indicative of this change.

Let me summarize the factors of change in five headlines.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Factor: As a representative of the opposition party looking for coalition for years, I can’t thank Tayyip Erdoğan enough. We are indebted to him for building the game around alliance system and thus forcing the opposition to form one. He built his game around forming the People’s Alliance, and pushing HDP out of the game with the policy of antagonizing so as to defeat the Nation Alliance (CHP- İYİ Party), but he fell into his own game. He enabled opposition parties to adopt the culture of coalition that has long been missed. CHP and İYİ Party organizations worked together while HDP supported from the outside. RTE adopted a polarizing and discriminatory discourse, arguing that the election is a matter of survivability. This discourse consolidated the constituents of CHP, which got resentful after June 24 presidential elections on the grounds that their votes were not protected.

Ekrem İmamoğlu Factor: When Ekrem İmamoğlu was elected as a candidate at the end of December, Istanbulites did not know him. But researches indicated that people would vote if a candidate, who is young and male (unfortunately), has a vision and capable of managing Istanbul, was nominated. This was in line with the candidate profile Kılıçdaroğlu had in mind. He was considering the candidates who had a success story in the local district municipality with a background and language that could appeal to every section of society and especially to conservative voters. As a matter of fact, candidates for Ankara, İzmir, Antalya, Adana were selected from such profiles.

Ekrem İmamoğlu is a politician I’ve known since 2014 elections. He migrated from Trabzon to Istanbul when he was a child, worked in trade. He comes from a family of conservative values who raised their older son with affection, love and self-confidence. Her great-grandfather participated in the Turkish War of Independence and he admires Atatürk and his republic. He started his political life with center-right but then voted for CHP because of his admiration for Atatürk. He witnessed and contributed to Beylikdüzü’s development (one of the new districts of Istanbul). After his mayorship of Beylikdüzü, he set the goal of becoming the mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and developed his mind and network accordingly.

Ekrem İmamoğlu founded his campaign on positive discourse, embracing one another, accepting our differences and defending freedom of speech. Whole campaign was built on him rather then parties supporting him. The campaign was representing values of Istanbul.

“There is Solution if Ekrem İmamoğlu Exist (İmamoğlu Varsa Çözüm Var)”

“Everything going to be nice (Herşey çok güzel olacak)”

At the beginning of his campaign, he said that Istanbulites would like him if they knew him and the people of Istanbul got to know him and loved him so much. He promise to reduce price of water and transportation. He appealed to women and youth by saying that Istanbul would be safe place for women.

Economic Crisis Factor: Turkey is heading for a major economic crisis. With the state support policy that has been going on for years, investment in the construction sector was supported instead of agricultural and industrial production. This resulted in high inflation and continuous price rise of everything, especially basic food products. Unemployment rate is at its highest level in ten years by 14,7 % around 5 million people mostly youth.

When union prices become compared with gold prices, Erdoğan came up with the great initiative, Tanzim Satış, where municipalities sold vegetables at half price. The sales were limited to maximum of three kilos of goods per person. He also tried to control grocery prices, which resulted with loss of some grocery chain at the first quarter.

Secular Kurdish Voter Factor: Even if the factors I’ve mentioned above went into the election results, success would not have been possible without HDP’s support. The decision of HDP to support Ekrem İmamoğlu and the call of Selahattin Demirtaş to go to the polls were the major factors that made a difference. The secular Kurds who play an important role of struggling for democracy in Istanbul, would also be critical in the future.

If you ask me what will happen on the 23rd of June, I say Istanbul will repeat its demand for change. This election is not just a Istanbul mayorship elections, it’s about the Turkey’s democratic will. I believe Ekrem İmamoğlu will win this time with a bigger margin. Let me explain why:

  • The unlawful decision of Supreme Election Committee shook the sense of justice among the constituents. Committee decided to cancel only one vote among four which were at the same envelop at the ballot box. It was obvious that decision was political rather than lawful. Even 4 dissenting judges said this decision neither lawful nor ethical.
  • Ekrem Imamoglu is now a victim. Just like Tayyip Erdoğan was one before. As a matter of fact, 35% of the AKP voters who voted for the AKP candidate on March 31st said they did not approve the renewal of the election. Among these, some will not go to the polls and some will vote for Imamoglu if they do.
  • İmamoğlu has shown a strong leadership on the election night and became a well-known popular political figure for resistance and change. In chaotic time we are passing, people want order and search for strong leadership. Ekrem İmamoğlu resonated by people who are waiting for strong reliable leader.
  • The perception of “Tayyip Erdoğan does not lose, nobody could beat him” has disappeared. Opposition parties have increased their confidence.
  • The economic collapse has become much worse following the decision of Supreme Election Committee, as inflation continued to increase. Voters are eager to give message to ruling party.
  • AKP is not a strong party anymore, though Erdoğan tries hard to pull the party together, criticisms are circulating around party founders.

Tayyip Erdoğan won by 25% at the 1994 local election. Erdoğan’s march, which started 25 years ago in Istanbul, will begin to end with the loss of Istanbul. Istanbul will do its part again and write a history of change. I hope this change will trigger the decline of the populist demagogue politicians in the world.

I hope the resilient city, Istanbul would be a pioneer of change not only in Turkey but also in the world.

Keep watching us!

We all believe that “Everything going to be nice” Herşey çok güzel olacak!

28 Mayıs 2019