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As Turkish President Erdoğan (L) shakes hands with Istanbul’s Mayor İmamoğlu, İzmir Mayor Soyer and Eskişehir Mayor Büyükerşen (R) watches, all members of the center-left opposition CHP. (Photo: Presidency)

Why does Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting local administrations of the big cities so harshly? I can guess that you can count some reasons from not being able to control municipal revenues any longer to transfer those revenues to the potential vote base of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in form of aid packages for the poor or through religious community foundations. But let me bring to your attention another angle of it; a more economic-political dimension with some class dimension. Especially when the coronavirus Covid-19 epidemic took the society as a prisoner in their homes, making the vulnerable people in need more help, despite all that “There is nothing, everything is fine” rhetoric.
March 31, 2019 local elections was a defeat for President Erdoğan. The fact that almost all metropolitan cities, especially Istanbul and Ankara, left the AKP mayors for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Party, was perhaps a development that would change the 2023 plans of Erdoğan, for the centenary anniversary of the Turkish Republic. The alliance of CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu with Good party (GP) leader Merak Akşener was victorious to Erdoğan’s alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli. Erdoğan consolation prize was to be prod of “Keeping the municipal councils at hand”. The plan was to tame the mayors who have been elected with the votes of millions of citizens through the city councils.
This tactic started to deteriorate first by Mansur Yavaş the new CHP mayor in Ankara in Ankara, who opened up all kinds of municipal activities to public, from city council meetings to lucrative tenders through live broadcasts on the web. It was followed by Ekrem İmamoğlu who won the June 23 revote in Istanbul and then other CHP municipalities. So it was possible for millions of voters to watch live who were acting against their interests just because of political stubbornness.

CHP has started to reach the urban poor

At that stage, the AKP encountered two main problems that it had never experienced before. The first was visible and predictable. Izmir was already in the hands of the CHP; Tunç Soyer, the Mayor continued the projects from his predecessor and transferred his experiences there, especially agricultural cooperatives to other CHP municipalities. However, Imamoglu in Istanbul, Yavaş in Ankara, Zeydan Karalar in Adana, Muhittin Böcek in Antalya have started to pose to the cameras wearing barrettes and laying ground for infrastructure investments. That was eroding the image that he wanted to create for the last two decades that there was nothing important done in Turkey before he took the power in 2002.
The second and the real in-depth effect was not very much in sight. For the first time, the CHP had access to the urban poor, whether it had been able to access for a long time, through municipalities. However, until now Erdoğan had been running a different system. Infrastructure work was brought to the economically weak and neglected neighborhoods of the cities (unfortunately also during CHP municipalities), and also wide roads and parks. However, instead of the investments to save the citizens living here from poverty, a system was established that kept them dependent on aid. The poor masses were grateful to the government and government party mayors, and they showed their gratitude to the AKP with their ballot boxes, which were held in front of them almost every year either in form of an election or a referendum. Erdoğan was used to harvest power from the aid-addicted poor of the cities for nearly twenty years.
There were people in CHP who were aware of this tactic for a while. The studies of Sencer Ayata in the 2011 elections campaign was a typical social democratic program. Ayata was targeting to increase the living standards of the urban poor the average white-collars, who are now considered at the poverty line, to let them establish a freer relationship with politics. But with the bureaucratized organizational structure of the CHP could not find an opportunity to reach out for the urban poor due to successive election defeats. Center-left Kılıçdaroğlu’s alliance with center-right Akşener in response to conservative Erdoğan’s alliance with nationalist Bahçeli in the 2019 local elections brought this opportunity.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

Having won the municipalities, the CHP started to get rid of the image of being trapped in the city centers and started to practice its social policies before the coronavirus pandemic has started. A committee established by Kılıçdaroğlu -despite an in-party opposition- consisting of 11 CHP metropolitan mayors, helped them to share their experiences and coordinate their actions.
As a matter of fact, even when the government was still playing Pollyanna and saying “Thank God we don’t have it” despite all Turkey’s neighbors were infected by Covid-19, it was the CHP municipalities started to take action in their capacity by disinfecting key transportation points in the cities. Then, when the disease was officially in Turkey, it was the CHP municipalities that started to support the citizens in the neighborhoods, for example, by distributing protective masks and deliver bread who could not get out. Ankara and Istanbul municipalities were the ones who launched donation campaigns for their fellow citizens who could not go out and lose their jobs, especially after curfew was imposed for those over 65 years old.
The fact that the CHP municipalities started to be visible on the stage and started to reach the people in depth was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Erdoğan. The next day, a few hours that Akşener revealed that she donated to the Ankara and Istanbul municipality campaigns to show social solidarity with the underprivileged citizens, Erdoğan launched the government’s donation campaign. While many governments were providing direct assistance to their citizens, President of Turkey was calling for citizens’ assistance. But in the meantime, there wasn’t the talk of a revision in the plan of paying the Treasury guaranteed BOT money to the construction companies because of the bridges not crossed, highways not travelled and airports with no take off and landing in USD as the value of 1 USD is heading for 7 liras. Moreover, the day that Erdoğan opened this aid campaign, he has frozen the bank accounts opened by Ankara and Istanbul municipalities for donations. The money that citizens who donated for solidarity with the townspeople is still cannot be used for its purpose.

Discrimination despite rhetoric of unity

Then Erdoğan banned the distribution of protective masks by the municipalities and the distribution of bread to those who could not go out on the streets, and he said that was like a terrorist act in his speech on April 20. When the Kayseri Municipality of AKP distributed bread, it was called as aid, but when the Ankara municipality distributed it, it was considered equivalent to terrorism, according to Erdoğan. Because, after many years, the CHP, has started to reach face-to-face to the people who had become dependent on aid packages and voted accordingly. For the first time, those aid packages did not reach to the people in need without AKP logos on them.
Forgetting that those mayors were elected by the votes of millions of citizens of this country, the President was accusing the mayors of terrorism just because they were trying to bring relief in difficult times. He cannot see how much those millions who preferred those mayors against Erdoğan’s candidate have been offended because of those accusations. Moreover, this discrimination is made under the discourse of “national unity and togetherness”.
It becomes clear that the main reason behind Erdoğan’s messing with the opposition mayors so much is that the opposition has started to get into in-depth contact with the urban poor and economically weak people for the first time in decades.
Another reason for Erdoğan’s strikes on municipalities could be the recent surveys. For example, in the end of March 2020 survey of MetroPoll, Erdoğan appears to have increased in popularity – like almost all leaders at times of disasters. But İmamoğlu and Yavaş appeared just behind him. Moreover, Erdoğan’s popularity was growing, but there was no advance in AKP popularity. Is it possible that Erdogan wanted to curb the enthusiasm of the opposition municipalities in order not to help their popularity further? There is no evidence to support that, but not something to be totally discarded under the circumstances.
These are moves in the right direction. It increases the polarization in the society at a time when the pandemic is making people suffer in pain. If Erdoğan can take off the AKP hat for a moment and assess the developments only under the Presidential hat, he can see that to include the municipalities into the solution is a better way for the country and for him as well.