[Public Diplomacy] The neo-right wing trend across Europe and Turkey: can coalitions of municipal leaders challenge populism?

In this contribution, I will discuss if political coalitions of liberal-minded local governments can challenge the rise of neo-right wing populism at the state level. I was intrigued and motivated by Sezin Öney’s article from 24.12.2019, published in English on Gazete Duvar. [1] In her article, Öney comments on the recent alliance of metropolitan mayors in central Europe, by contextualizing the development with the case of Istanbul. There, oppositional leader Ekrem İmamoğlu from the nationalist (and some call it social democratic) party CHP had won the last municipal elections in early 2019 twice. His slogan was „Everything will be very beautiful“ (Her şey çok güzel olacak), promissing a liberal ‚wind of change‘ to the exhausted electorate. She asks:

„Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics?“ [2]

In this discussion, I do not disagree with Öney’s main points and ideas, nor will I merely reproduce them. I would rather like to add some more questions, and to also shed some light on the background of the development of municipal and metropolitan, administrative structures in Turkey and Istanbul. Consequently, I will explore inter-municipal arrangements — „sibling districts“ — between Turkey and Bosnia. In her conclusion, the author readdresses and specificies the initial question, adding:

“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?”[3]

As a premature answer to this question, I would premise: Yes, they can. Or, more precisely: they theoretically can. And yet, the article doesn’t mention the already existing structures and networks between local governments from Turkey and abroad, and this is where I would like to tie in: Turkey offers a prominent example of a country that actively encourages and finances networks of cities and city districts, while pursuing the opposite goals with these networks than the above mentioned.

This is not to say that every project that is financed by Turkish city districts abroad is per se „problematic“. Yet, the ruling party that dominates these arrangements can be seen as a neo-right wing, populist regime ‚that made it‘. As such, it doesn’t promote alternative „spaces to breathe“ — neither at home, as Gezi had proved, nor abroad. AKP-Turkey rather promotes neo-traditionalist, neo-Ottomanist, illiberal and non-democratic values, especially to its unrivaled, primary project-region, which is the Western Balkans.

Simultaneously, these measures are accompanied by massive campaigns of desinformation through its new media apparatus: TRT World, Anadolu Agency and smaller media outlets amongst them. I will argue that this (ongoing) legacy of the AKP should be taken into account when we discuss the potential of inter-urban networks in promoting cosmopolitan, tolerant policies.

Alliances of cities (and their governments), rather than states’ governments, seem to offer a more suitable and contemporary network-structure in our days of the world wide web and advanced cosmopolitization. Perhaps, this is not true for many of the aspects of the larger body politic, like defense; but in other areas, especially culture and education, flat hierarchies and cosmopolitan networks are reasonable forms of organization.

The case of higher education, mentioned on the example of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, is a primary example: nowadays, any successful university and endeavor in playing a competitive role in science and global academia must necessarily be open-minded to the world. Every takeover by narrow-mindedness and restrictions will harm the success of science in a very broad and general sense, let alone in the field of social science and humanities. In that sense, the Hungarian hostilities against the CEU are a hostility against itself.

If it is true that city governments tend to be more cosmopolitan than the national level, then the conclusion could be that city governments should play a more crucial role in networking, financing, administrating and operating cultural exchange activities. Under (still) democratic circumstances, they could (and probably they already do in an unmeasured way) challenge the populist drive — even though it is highly questionable how persistent democracy will and can be, once the larger body politic, the ‚national polis‘, is captured by neo-right wing populists.

In that sense, the example of the highlighted alliance of central European mayors (Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw) appears promising, at the first glance: otherwise, all four countries of these capital cities suffer from neo-right wing, populist regimes. The declared goal of these mayors is to mobilize a counter-weight to the dominant, narrow-minded public discourse of the populists. Amongst their opponents, the most prominent figure is Victor Orbán and his party Fidesz, also given their role in the hostilities towards the CEU in Budapest.

State, city, district and governorate in Turkey

However, in Istanbul, where the AKP and its infuriated leader lost the last municipal elections of 2019 twice, the situation seems to be quite complex. Istanbul, like the other 29 Turkish metropolises (büyükşehir), does not only have a metropolitan government (büyükşehir belediyesi), but influential mayors on the level of districts (belediye başkanları). This is not very different from other international metropolises, e.g. Berlin with its districts (Bezirke). However, there is another institution in Istanbul, which is the governorate (valilik), widely seen as the state’s extended arm into the city.

Before praising the new Istanbulite city government over the skies (which the author does not do), one should keep in mind that the overall administrative-territorial framework in Turkey, dominated by the AKP-regime, is non-democratic and anti-political: cities and city districts, where ‚unwished‘ parties (like the pro-Kurdish HDP) eventually win the municipal elections, can easily be brought under direct rule of the regime by harsh measures.

This is often achieved by dismissing, or even incarcerating, the democratically elected mayors and replacing them with embedded governors, lacking any democratic legitimacy. It is worth mentioning that this practice was inherited by the post-1980 coup junta. According to critical Turkish journalists — and yes, there are still brave and critical journalists in Turkey — 30 HDP mayors were ‚removed‘ in early 2019, all in the Kurdish inhabited eastern and southeastern parts of the country. Likewise, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the two HDP leaders, were trialed and imprisoned.

The criminalisation of the HDP

One of the main characteristics of the HDP is its dual, female-male leadership, which clearly contradicts the AKP’s alpha male based worldview. Because of this and other reasons, the development of the HDP can absolutely not be ignored if we speak of „cosmopolitan, tolerant, open-minded“ politicians and values that could possibly add to the establishment of alternative „spaces to breathe“ in a growingly illiberal, neo-populist landscape of public opinions accross the world. This new, illiberal pseudo-environment is created and perpetuated by online social networks and massive campaigns of desinformation by „new news“.

Turkish police preparing for the 1 May demonstrations in Izmir, 2014.

Overturned and imprisoned HDP members cannot reckon with many signs of solidarity by other members of the opposition in Turkey. The Kurdish question, and especially minority rights like langague and culture, are anathema in the established, nationalist public opinions. Moreover, the mentioned desinformation campaigns have also thrown a thick layer of silence over the fate of Selahattin Demirtaş and others abroad. However, during my field studies in 2015, things seemed to take another turn. Then, the increasingly positive attitudes towards the charismatic HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş were met with horror and rage by the ruling regime.

Back in 2015, I spoke to many Istanbulites who voted for the HDP, and all of them stressed that they were not motivated by ethnic Kurdish ideas. None of them wanted to „divide“ the country — quite the contrary: all of them wanted their already deeply divided society to heal and to reconciliate. Most of them were non-Kurdish, many of them academics, and in cosmopolitan Istanbul, the HDP counted for the new party of an educated, open-minded elite with new and non-nationalist visions.

In fact, there was no relevant political alternative to people who were favoring social justice in a sense that would transcend the simple binary of „we“ and „them“, „black Turks“ and „white Turks“, „seculars“ and „religious“; These people didn’t only want to overcome the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, but they also demanded gender equality and solutions to environmental issues. They demanded their right to the freedom of speech, and they wanted to participate in the decision-making process regarding the distribution of public goods: the Gezi-park was and is the symbol for all of that.

Selahattin Demirtaş: the „Kurdish Obama“

In both local and international media — not in the Balkans, heavily targeted my desinformation campaigns — Demirtaş was often called „the Kurdish Obama“. Indeed, there were many similarities, as many as between the AKP-leader Erdogan and the Republican Trump. Regarding the the AKP-leader, as numerous and grounded were the comparisons to European neo-right wing, populist figures like Hungary’s Victor Orbán and Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić; the latter comparisons were more often made in the years following 2015. Tellingly, these alpha male figures today often stage as ‚buddies‘ one to another in public events. Regarding parallels between the HDP and the German political landscape, first comparisons would probably evoke similarities to the Green party (e.g. the HDP’s tree-logo and its pro-Gezi stance), or to the Left Party. The AKP would rather partner with the AfD, Germany’s identitarian, neo-right wing party.

The results of the HDP in the 6 June 2015 elections were overwhelming: 13,1 % — significantly breaking the 10 % threshold. It drove some of my Istanbulite friends out to the streets of Kadıköy, where they danced Halay, a widely popular round dance. I saw hope and joy on their faces. But all this even went much further.

A regular scene: Istanbulites perform Halay in Kadıköy (anonymous), April 2015.

I should add that many people whom I met in Istanbul were opponents of the AKP-regime. Still, that doesn’t mean that they had the slightest sympathy for Kurds or the HDP. Yet, in the summer of 2015, I observed that even some people who would otherwise unhesitatingly declare themselves Kemalists and nationalists — a word that is not connotated negatively to many Turkish people — would utter sympathy and warm words directed to the HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş (much more to him than to Figen Yüksekdağ, truth be said).

Perhaps I am wrong, but what I found striking was the medial coverage on Selahattin Demirtaş, his family, and how these pictures were perceived in the part of the public opinions that I had access to. I watched one long TV interview with Demirtaş, when he took his bağlama, the traditional string instrument that unites Turks, Kurds and other groups in Turkey. They all use and love their bağlama, and then Demirtaş began to play and to sing. I couldn’t understand the entire song, but I felt very touched. In a conversation with a Turkish woman of Balkan origin who declared herself a nationalist, she told me that she doesn’t like „the Kurds“, but that she would gladly accept Demirtaş as her son-in-law.

After all, that’s not so surprising if you followed up his public performance. The other day, I saw a report on Demirtaş, his wife and his daughters in their family home. Selahattin Demirtaş is a handsome, smart and mostly smiling man, and his family was portrayed in a very similar way. His wife and daughters were neither veiled nor shown as passive; simultaneously, Demirtaş demonstrated proximity to traditional milieus, showing him next to Kurdish women in Diyarbakır, who weared the light and white headscarf of the southeast.

With Demirtaş, I had the impression, the repertoire of public opinions in Turkey was enriched with a new ‚type‘ that had no comparative equal in the prevailing public stereotypes of politicians — at least outside Turkish pop-culture with its outspokenly ‚metrosexual‘ superstars: a Kurdish man who lives an ostentatatiously relaxed relationship with the principal of gender equality, Kurdishness and traditions, topped by his charming friendliness.

…and the roaring antitype: Erdoğan

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan represents the clear antitype of Demirtaş: he rarely ever smiles, he addresses his political opponents in an aggressive manner (e.g. „Eyy…! Have you forgotten the Ottoman slap in the face, I shall give you one!“), he is divisive, fearful, and he is a proponent of a weird, new form of traditionalism, by exhaustively exploiting and abusing the religious repertoire. He has very clear ideas about the position of men and women in society, and he is not stingy with telling women how many children they were ought to give birth to: three in Turkey, five in Bosnia.

At the first glance, he roars out nothing but self-assertive strength: but in fact, the AKP-leader is without any chance against a figure like Demirtaş, with his integrative potential. Sheer fear, and nothing else, is the reason why Selahattin Demirtaş was incarcerated in 2016. He is still being kept in prison, despite his illness, and alongside of numerous other liberal, prominent and completely unknown persons. Concomitant of a series of bloody assassinations and massacres, more fear would take my friends’ breath: I saw adult people crying and losing their energy. Many would turn their backs to Turkey in the recent years.

One of the massive „meetings against terror“, organized by the regime in late summer 2015.

This, amongst many other reasons, is why the correct classification of the current regime and its mindset is anti-political – a notion borrowed from Hannah Arendt – and non-democratic; despite the pseudo-democratic façade, maintained by the fact that there are elections in Turkey. From a central European perspective, one may bitterly add that there were ‚elections‘ in the former GDR, too. Many people from the GDR have described the GDR, nominally a „democracy“, as a grey and unattractive country. I can’t help but seeing Turkey today as an increasingly „grey“ place, too; however, it is important to stress that this has not been the case before Gezi. This is because another consequence of the fearful campaigns and repressions was that the once colourful and humourous, Turkish public opinions, whether on the streets or in the online social networks, fell silent. The epitome of of Istanbul’s thriving colourfulness was its yearly Pride Parade (Onur Yürüyüşü), an event that I had the luck to be an active part of in 2007.

Participants of the 2015 Pride March prepare on a ferry on the Bosphorus. Less than one hour later, police will attack them with tear gas. Summer 2015.

Sibling cities and sibling districts

As already insinuated in the introduction, the AKP era saw the thickening of a network of national and international partner cities and city districts. In the typically ‚familizing‘ parlance that is so characteristic for many notions from the realm of Turkish citizenship, partnered city districts or cities are called „sister cities“ or „town twinnings“. But sensu stricto, these are still analogous and non-literal translations for „kardeş şehir“ or „kardeş belediye“: „kardeş“ means „sibling“, but without the grammatical genderedness of sister cities. Therefore, I shall use the unsual notion of „sibling cities“.

These sibling cities are organized in federations, like the „Union of Districts of the Turkish World“ (Türk Dünyası Belediyeler Birliği), but they are also existing as arrangements between single districts. Other organizations, like the mighty Directorate of Religion (Diyanet), also run initiatives for sibling districts. Involved in the activities of these sibling districts is typically TİKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, which endows projects with finance and establishes contacts to Turkish holdings from the construction sector; these holdings often have direct ties to the party. This applies, at least, to sibling cities whose Turkish partner is AKP-governed; I am not sure if the existing siblings between CHP-governed Turkish districts and their Balkan counterpart equally profit from TİKA and its arrangements with holdings and banks like Ziraat.

Rent and reinvestment of the earned ‚Renommiergeld‘

The activities of these district siblings are manifold. Mostly, they stress restauration works of Ottoman sites, they perform religious activities — like open-air fast-breaking (iftar) ceremonies or collective circumcisions for Muslim boys (sünnet şölenleri) — and they organize mutual visits and exchange programs. They also foster interest abroad in Turkish language and tourism in Turkey, and another organization of the state, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı), is actively involved in these activities. Involved is also a Coordinatorship of Public Diplomacy (Kamu Diplomasisi Kordinatörlüğü) under the roof of the Presidency of the Turkish State.

Despite the fact that many sibling cities arrangements started as initiatives run by Balkan emigrants/refugees in Turkey, the state-directed initiatives outnumber the latter by far. As I’ve already mentioned, not all of the activities financed by these sibling districts are per se problematic: nothing is bad about renovating mosques, hammams, fountains, public squares, bridges or similar. The question is rather: why are these activities pursued? What is the purpose of the renovation — behind the renovation, so to speak? How is the rent of these activities, the ‚Renommiergeld‘ („bragging-money“), reinvested and made profit of?

There is more than one answer. But since the initial question, originally raised by Sezin Öney, was if networks of metropolitan mayors can „counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics“, my answer will focalize the aspect of these potentially arising „spaces to breathe“, understood as liberal milieus. As I initially said: yes, they theoretically can.

However, in the Western Balkans — and more specifically in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the neighboring Sandžak area of Montenegro and Serbia — the performance of local governments and municipal leaders in a wider, „cosmopolitized space of action“, as Ulrich Beck had put it, is nothing new. There are outcomes and results of these arrangements, and many of them speak an illiberal, populist, demagogic language. In other words: in reality, networks of city governments often do not create alternative spaces to breathe.

The smaller and the elder siblings

The neo-right wing, populist AKP regime in Turkey doesn’t only infiltrate the public space with „new news“, i.e. a pleasing composition of „reality“ and „pseudo-environment“. Representatives of official Turkey also do make direct use of the ‚Renommiergeld‘ earned from their activities in sibling districts arrangements. This can be done either by reinvesting the Renommiergeld into the achievement of political (i.e. anti-political) consent at home, or by interfering into the political process in the host country of the sibling districts arrangements. In the second scenario, threats like „don’t forget we are siblings“ or „have you forgotten what we’ve done for you so far?“ can and will be used by the elder sibling, in the case that the weaker sibling dares not to obey the given orders.

What has been done so far: renovated cultural sites from the Ottoman period in Skopje, December 2014.

And sometimes, the order may have been unclear to the smaller sibling. One prominent example is the „causa Orhan Pamuk“ from 2018: Pamuk, one of Turkey’s best known writers, Nobel laureate and a liberal voice, was suggested by the Sarajevan bookshop and publisher ‚buybook‘ to be made Sarajevo’s official honorary citizen. And it did never happen. I quote from an article by Alison Flood, published in The Guardian on 20 February 2018:

“The council commission explanation was that Orhan Pamuk did nothing or almost nothing for the city of Sarajevo. Some members from the ruling party estimated that awarding Mr Pamuk might cause the anger of Turkey’s current government. They used this opportunity to send a message to Pamuk … that he is not welcome in Sarajevo,” said Uzunović. (Source)

Pamuk was (and is) a problem to the AKP-regime, which has to do with their worldview and the genocide against the Bosnian Muslims in the 1992-1995 war.

The instrumentalized genocide

The Bosniak siblings play a very clear role in this worldview: they were fallen victims to a genocide, and this genocide was anti-Muslim. This is, of course, true: Bosnian Muslims, officially called Bosniaks from 1993, not only carry the highest body count in the Bosnian war from 1992-1995: the massacre of Srebrenica in July 1995 is internationally and legally recognized as a genocide.

This was officially recognized by International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a (former) body of the United Nations (UN): there is proven evidence that the intention was to extinguish Muslim life from Srebrenica, hence the criteria of the legal category of genocide were met. In other cases, like the municipalities of Prijedor or Višegrad (and others), the ICTY didn’t sanction the war crimes as genocide, but as crimes against humanity.

The public opinions in the Balkans are divided: the genocide against Muslims is not recognized by the perpetrators’ representatives. These are Serbia, but also (and even more bitterly, from the perspective of their Bosniak compatriots) the Serb Republic inside Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). Both Serbia and the so-called Serb Republic of BiH are governed by illiberal, right wing and populist regimes.

But what is the problem from a liberal point of view? And what has this to do with Orhan Pamuk?

First, the problem is not the topic per se, but its function as a proxy trope and its instrumentalization as such. Thus, in the topic of the Bosniak genocide, we encounter a similar pattern as in the case of the other activities of the Turkish cultural diplomats: the Bosniak genocide serves a particular interest, while the public is made believe that the AKP-regime is the innocent ‚saviour‘ of Muslims. Many Bosniaks in the Balkans believe that the new, strong Turkish State, with its markedly and outspokenly Muslim leader, will save them from future hardships and dangers. Understandable, one may add, given the inachieved recognition and reconciliation process in the direct neighborhood.

Secondly, the topic of the Bosniak genocide is used as the anti-topic of the Armenian genocide, as well as any kind of inglorious Ottoman legacies. These comprise massacres against Anatolian Alevis by Sultan Yavuz Selim, a much admired sultan by the AKP-leader, who even named the new (third) bridge of the Bosphorus after this sultan. The aspect of the Bosniak genocide as the „proxy anti-genocide“ is a bit more difficult to understand. However, it can be puzzled together through an analysis of the AKP-leader’s populist speech acts.

Erdogan repeatedly said two things: „My ancestors didn’t commit genocide, they wouldn’t do that“ (Ecdadım soykırım yapmamıştır, yapmaz) and „A Muslim doesn’t commit genocide“ (Müslüman soykırım yapmaz). Quite the reverse, Muslims are victims of genocide, and the Bosniaks „approve“ of that.

Orhan Pamuk’s „mistake“

In the AKP-leader’s binary worldview and logic, there is no possibility for acknowledging that history is not a monocausal, monolithic process of either/or. In his worldview, as expressed in the sentence „A Muslim doesn’t commit genocide“, it is an eternal and unquestionable truth that Muslims do not and cannot commit genocide. This becomes obvious not only in the numerous negations of the Armenian genocide, but also in his loyalty and friendship to Omar Al-Bashir, Sudan’s former Islamist president. Al-Bashir was charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court investigation in Darfur.

Orhan Pamuk’s „mistake“ was that he openly and repeatedly spoke of an „Armenian genocide“. But Pamuk is not alone: there is a considerable crowd of critical public intellectuels, in Turkey and internationally, to whom it is out of question that the events in 1915 were a genocide. This does, of course, not dilute the fact that there was a genocide in Bosnia, 80 years later. In fact, world history is full with genocides: the Shoa, the German genocide against the Herero and Nama of Namibia, the European colonisation of the Americas, the Cambodian genocide, the Indonesian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, and many other examples show that.

What we can learn from the given case is neither that there is genocide denial, nor is this phenomenon limited to the current regime in Turkey: as the Bosniak experience shows, there is widespread genocide denial amongst the perpetrators, but also amongst those who think they must speak on behalf of the perpetrators in a protective manner. Denial, moreover, is also considered to be an integral part of genocide itself.


To conclude with the final answer to the leading question in this contribution: municipal elections, the advanced urbanization and the cosmopolitization of the world may seem promising in terms of their potential to challenge the neo-right wing, populist triumph of our days. Nevertheless, the condition of the nation-state as the superordinate body politic continues to be decisive: as the Turco-Balkanic sibling districts and cities show, the municipality is often just another manifestation of the nation-state and its governing regime. This finding doesn’t contradict the fact that in arrangements of sibling districts, both partners influence each other, as the causa Pamuk shows. This also means that a liberal turn in one of the partner districts may induce a a liberalisation in the other.

[1] Öney, Sezin: Mayoral avengers of populism, in: Gazete Duvar, 24.12.2019, URL: https://www.duvarenglish.com/columns/2019/12/24/mayoral-avengers-of-populism/ (last retrieved: 10.3.2020).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

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