[Public Diplomacy] Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism? (Part 1/8)

On this series: This blog post belongs to a series under the title and leading question „Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?“. The complete series are my contribution to an edited volume by Dr. Agata Rogoś, postdoctoral research fellow at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Agata’s Edited volume’s working title is „Permeability of dispossession / Dispossession of borders“. In accordance with her, I publish my contribution on my personal homepage, prior to the finalization of the book. The final version may still change, whether due to further copy editing and proofreading, or regarding the unclear and unforeseeable course of events and political circumstances in Europe, in the Western Balkans, and in Turkey. Yet, I believe that the phenomenon of cross-border neo-populism, as in the given case of Bosnia and Turkey, will not disappear any time soon. The complete list of references will be included in the first and in the last contribution of this series, which consists of eight single sections.


In this contribution, I will discuss the possibilities and limits of town twinnings, city diplomacy and coalitions of mayors as possible solutions to the global rise of populism and neo-populism. I will focus the case of Turkish-Bosnian (Bosniak) town twinnings, which will be called sibling cities throughout the text: this metaphore better responds to the Turkish notion of kardeş şehir, the Bosnian notion pobratimlja, and the asymmetrical relationship of these arrangements. These recent forms of town twinnings are deviant from many other, well-known examples — mainly for being dominated by authoritarian, right-wing and neo-populist actors. Populism, despite being a global trend, is often perceived as a phenomenon that occurs inside a given nation-state. However, cross-border coalitions of municipalities between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey together form a polity beyond the level of national governments; at once, they remain being heavily shaped by the latter. Alongside with this phenomenon, a new form of cross-border neo-populism is emerging: unlike „classical“ populism, neo-populism addresses more than one populus (people).

According to Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, populism is a „buzzword of the 21st century“ (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser 2017), and the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon has even proclaimed a “century of populism” (siècle du populisme) in his most recent monograph from 2020 (Rosanvallon 2020). But despite the speed and the intensity of its venture, the unfolding of Turkish-Bosniak cross-border neo-populism is rather neglected in the ever-growing thickness of scholarship on populism, town twinnings, Bosniak-Turkish public diplomacy, and city diplomacy. Yet, the scarcity (or inexistence) of studies treating neo-populism as a distinctive phenomenon that differs from nation-state centred populism, I argue, does not necessarily imply that it doesn’t exist or that its significance and relevance were neglectable. Hence, some of Turkish-Bosniak neo-populism’s most important commonalities with and differences from populism, as most prominently understood, need to be demonstrated in this contribution.

At the entrance to the famous Galatasaray Lycée in Istanbul-Beyoğlu, the Erbakan Vakfı (Foundation) announces: „The Islamic Union will be founded with your light [enlightenment]“. Necmettin Erbakan, here portrayed in proximity to Sultan Abdülhamid II., is seen as the spiritus rector of Turkey’s current, populist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Late Erbakan (d. 2011) was not only a leading political figure of various Islamist parties and short-time Prime Minister of Turkey (1996-1997), but most importantly, the co-founder and key figure of Millî Görüş („National Outlook“). Millî Görüş is a religious-political movement with strong nationalist traits. While Nationalist-Islamist, it also contains a strong tendency to transgress the national borders of Turkey. The Turkish regime’s Sendungsbewusstsein (sense of mission or, perhaps, „mission civilisatrice„) behind the recent cross-border initiatives of cultural diplomacy in the post-Ottoman realm cannot be understood without taking into consideration the role of these and numerous similar, Islamist Turkish organizations, movements and actors in the Balkans. Picture by Thomas Schad (taken in 2016).

But why should local governments and their coalitions be in the spotlight? Why and how should politicians at the local level be able to challenge state-level populism? These questions arise from the observation that the municipal (local) level often seems to be a promissing and fertile ground for non- or anti-populist policies, as some examples from Europe and Turkey shall show.

Throughout 2019 and 2020, nearly 140 German municipalities have repeatedly signaled their capacities and committment to host refugees — anathema to the country’s right-wing populist parties. But what seemed to be arrangeable with the electorate at the local level, was apparantly inacceptable to the federal government, whose representatives thwarted the German mayors‘ offer. In the German context, these municipalities‘ signals can be understood as a liberal pushback against the rise of the nativist, populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in the public opinion, which had gained momentum following the influx of refugees in the years 2015-2016 (“Geflüchtete an griechisch-türkischer Grenze” 2020).

Another example for resistance against populism came from Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest: these four capitals have signed the „Pact of Free Cities“ in December 2019, demanding the EU to bypass their populist (and allegedly corrupt) national governments in the allocation of funds (Öney 2019; Tamkin 2020) – a discussion which also resonates in the November 2020 veto of Hungary and Poland against the EU budget and coronavirus recovery plan (Boffey 2020; „Hallo, Diktator“, 2020).

A third example of pressure onto state level populism exerted by local politicians comes from Turkey. Even though it remains highly questionable how liberal the Turkish oppositional Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi/ henceforth: CHP) really is, many burnt out Turkish voters have praised the results of the 2019 municipal elections as a sign of liberal relaxation (Duran 2019). The simple slogan „Everything will be beautiful“ (Her şey güzel olacak) by Ekrem İmamoğlu from the CHP („İmamoğlu’na yumruk,“ 2019) led him win the forcibly repeated Istanbul mayoral election twice, which was interpreted as a strong expression of the electorate’s fatigue with the nearly two-decade long experience with the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi / henceforth: AKP) (Öney 2019). Conflating İmamoğlu’s victory and the statement of the Central European mayors‘ alliance, Turkish analyst Sezin Öney raised the following question:

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?

(Öney 2019)

Öney’s questions shall deserve a deeper investigation in this contribution, and be readdressed in the conclusion.

Departing from European and transatlantic, post World War II town twinnings, municipal coalitions are by far not a very recent undertaking. But while the town twinnings from the After-WWII period are mostoften perceived as liberal projects, aiming at bridging and reconciliating historical conflicts – many of the Turkish-Bosnian sibling city-arrangements are heavily shaped by illiberal, identitarian actors, both from Turkey and Bosnia-Herzegovina.[1] Secondly, the vagueness of the notion of populism deserves discussion: populism is often applied to right-wing and left-wing movements – hence, it can’t be taken for granted that the above quoted slogan by İmamoğlu was per se anti-populist or non-populist, just because he opposed the strongly identitarian, right-wing populist regime represented by the Turkish ruling party AKP; nor should his oviously popular slogan lead to the premature conclusion that he and his party are „left-wing“.

All these questions will be discussed throughout this article, which evolved out of a blog contribution from January 2020 (Schad 2020), and which is based on material collected during the field research (2013-2019) for my doctoral thesis (which was defended in 2020; cf. Schad 2015; 2018; 2019). Amongst others, the material basis consists of my year-long monitoring of the development of Turkish-Bosniak public diplomacy, its speech acts and activities, and the reactions of public opinion makers in Turkey and the Western Balkans. The main sources used here are newspaper articles, secondary literature, own photography, pop-cultural products, ethnographic interviews, and public speech acts.

Overwiew of the subsequent chapters:

  • In Chapter 2, this contribution explores some of the most important findings and gaps in the existing secondary literature;
  • Chapter 3 will offer an outline of the territorial-administrative infrastructure of Turkey;
  • In Chapter 4, a brief summary of the illiberal framework for Turkish municipalities‘ scope of action complements the Turkish administrative structures;
  • In Chapter 5, I will demonstrate how both together form the institutional ground for the development of Turkish-Bosniak sibling cities in the AKP era: a phenomenon which is deeply – and often in a contradictory way – interwoven with the context of Balkan immigrants‘ (muhacir) activities in their former homelands;
  • In Chapter 6, some of the Turkish ruling regime’s activities in the Balkans will demonstrate its sense of mission — a Sendungsbewusstsein or mission civilisatrice (medeniyetçi) in its own regard — which follows a revisionist narrative of „re-appropriation of our forefathers‘ lands“;
  • Chapter 7 will show that the Turkish ruling regime’s institutions follow the pattern of a mixed gift economy, which besides hard, monetary currencies is strongly leaning on culture, religion, and tropes of the family-system – and in which two main items of trade are at stake: first, what Marcel Mauss (Mauss 1966) has called Renommiergeld (i.e., bragging money / prestige), and secondly, the promise of security;
  • However, as Chapter 8 (Tribute to the sultan: the disinvitation of Orhan Pamuk by Sarajevo) will discuss, the „trade agreement“ between the unequal, figurative siblings as trading partners shows frictions and tensions;
  • In Chapter 9 (the conclusion — soon to be added), I will readdress the leading question on the possibilities and limits of town twinnings as possible counter-actors of cross-border neo-populism and wrap-up some of neo-populism’s main features – in an overall, global context that late sociologist Ulrich Beck had couched in the metaphore of the metamorphosis of the world (Beck 2016).

Read in the next blog post more about Turkish-Bosnian sibling cities and a semantic problem with ‚populism‘

Recommended form of citation

Schad, Thomas. (2021) ‚Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?‘ ( = Part 1 of the series under the same title)Inkubator Metamorph, 22 June. Available at: https://thomasschad.wordpress.com/2021/06/22/public-diplomacy-can-networks-of-local-governments-challenge-the-rise-of-cross-border-neo-populism/ (Accessed: Date of access)


[1] It is important to mention that there are also town twinnings between Russian and Bosnian-Serb municipalities, which for reasons of length can’t be analyzed in this contribution.


I thank Serhan Şahin and Eva Schmidt for their patience and valuable comments on draft versions of this paper.


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