Why do Istanbul mayoral candidates need to tour Anatolia to seek support?

Some found it puzzling when the two main candidates for the June 23 Istanbul rerun used the three-day Eid al-Fitr break this week to visit provinces in Anatolia and seek the support of voters there, rather than in Istanbul.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu and the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Binali Yıldırım will compete for a second time later this month to be elected as the mayor of Istanbul, after the country’s Supreme Election Council annulled the local polls in March 31 in Turkey’s financial powerhouse, following an AKP appeal which cited severe irregularities.

The Istanbulites who combined the three-day break with weekend holidays left the city almost deserted for 10 days. The mayoral candidates used that opportunity to visit different places in Turkey to reach out to voters or, according to some, followed voters from Istanbul to their hometowns.

İmamoğlu on Wednesday went to his hometown, the Black Sea coastal province of Trabzon, and spoke in three election rallies in Trabzon and neighbouring Giresun and Ordu.

The opposition candidate urged Trabzon natives who were visiting their families from their permanent homes in Istanbul to return for the vote on June 23, and asked Trabzon locals to call friends and acquaintances in Istanbul and talk to them about the poll.

Yıldırım on Thursday visited central Anatolian province of Sivas, before heading to southeast Turkey, to predominantly Kurdish Diyarbakır.

“My fellow people of Diyarbakır, are we going to declare a new victory in Istanbul on June 23? I came to Diyarbakır to ask for your support,” Yıldırım said in the southeastern province.

This 10-day break exposed the complexities of engaging in politics in Istanbul. These complexities have drawn little attention for almost two decades, as Islamist parties' grip on the province seemed absolute.

That all changed when İmamoğlu declared victory on March 31, albeit by a narrow margin, bringing excitement back to Turkey’s financial and cultural hub, which alone contributes more than 30 percent of Turkey’s total GDP and paid 43.9 percent of taxes collected in the country in 2018.

Istanbul is a province of immigrants, who, starting from the 1960s, flocked to the city from other places in Anatolia, generation after generation, hoping for a better life.

According to 2018 data from the Turkish Statistical Institute, only 6.8 million of Istanbul’s 15.2 million population were born in Istanbul. Data on the birth places of people living in Istanbul in some cases shows that the total population of other provinces in the country is lower than the total number of people who migrated from those provinces to Istanbul.

When he was elected as Istanbul’s mayor in 1994, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sparked outrage by proposing an Istanbul visa in order to cut immigration. However, when he came to power in 2002, he pursued a growth policy that depended on the construction industry, which could only be sustained by spatial expansion of Istanbul, thus through the constant flow of immigration to the province, according to economist Haluk Levent, an academic at Istanbul Kemerburgaz University.

Thus, people living in other parts of Turkey are to a large extend tied financially to the economic performance of Istanbul, but the reverse is also true. “Istanbul is one of the rare metropolitan cities that cannot feed itself from its own hinterland,” Levent said. Thus, for both those immigrating to Istanbul and those staying in their hometowns keeping trade ties is important.

However, trade networks between Istanbul and other parts of Turkey is only one part of the story. Another important factor is cultural identity, which makes Istanbul an amalgam of local cultures in Anatolia. This does not create a cosmopolitan richness, but rather represents a unity that can easily be dispersed, according to Levent.

Like other metropolitan cities worldwide, those coming to Istanbul preferred to establish their own neighbourhoods, occupied by people who immigrated from the same province, or from the same district, and sometimes from the same village.

“This is a serious handicap for Istanbul, in fact, as those coming do not arrive here after burning bridges; several generations see themselves not as the owners of the city but its mere inhabitants, said Levent. “In other words, for a significant percentage of the population, Istanbul is a place to live temporarily and their real dream is to create a new life outside Istanbul.”

As a result, many in Istanbul prefer to spend some time every year in their hometown, hoping to protect their ties. Loyalty to hometowns is so important that, after the local polls on March 31, some said the AKP had lost the election in Istanbul because many opted to vote in their birth places instead of their places of residence, since elections for mukhtars -neighbourhood heads - is more important in smaller provinces.

In 2017, 15,523 of the 111,747 active associations in Turkey were "hometown associations", organisations representing the community of immigrants from particular parts of the country.

“Hometown associations is a reality of Istanbul. Almost 50 percent of those associations are in Istanbul,” said Elif Avcı from the Local Monitoring, Research, and Practice Association (Yereliz).

Those associations on the one hand help people to adopt to the life in a big city, but on the other hand keep alive ties to the places they come from, according to Avcı. Therefore, when you ask someone living in Istanbul where he or she is from, they usually respond by telling you their hometown, implying that those are the places that form their cultural identity.

This complex structure also forces political parties to do some complicated calculations to appease various groups representing different hometowns when choosing candidates.

“92 percent of those in Istanbul identify themselves as Sunni Muslims,” Avcı said.  Given the loyalty of people to their cultural roots, the parties intentionally choose a “Sunni Turkish man” as their candidates.

When you look more closely, this tendency may lead to even more striking outcomes: For example, 11 of the Istanbul’s 39 district mayors elected on March 31 are from Trabzon, like İmamoğlu.

Erdoğan repeatedly tells his fellow party members that winning in Istanbul means winning Turkey. When it comes to local polls, this implies a tricky campaign strategy that should take into account interactions between those living in Istanbul and locals in their hometowns.

According to Levent, the ruling AKP, aware of this fact, brought groups of people from different places of Anatolia to Istanbul for local polls. Those groups joined election campaign in neighbourhoods that host large numbers of people from the same hometowns.

But, a political party should also consolidate voters everywhere in Turkey to win Istanbul.

“In order to win elections, campaigns in Istanbul cannot be sufficient. You have to go to Sivas, Kastamonu or Ordu as well,” Avcı said.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.