Argument

Imamoglu Won the Vote, but Can He Save Istanbul?

The new mayor will preside over a city that people are fleeing in droves.

People celebrate in Istanbul after Republican People’s Party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu won the city’s rerun mayoral elections on June 23.
People celebrate in Istanbul after Republican People’s Party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu won the city’s rerun mayoral elections on June 23. Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

During a televised debate held one week before he lost the Istanbul mayoral election for the second time this year, Binali Yildirim of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed that, last year, Istanbul’s population shrunk for the first time ever. Yildirim asserted that because his party had improved infrastructure throughout Anatolia, people had begun to return to their towns and villages.

Official figures contradict Yildirim. Although an alarming 595,000 people left the city last year, Istanbul’s population actually increased slightly in 2017-2018 likely thanks to domestic migration and natural population increase. But he is correct that many more people than ever before are abandoning the city for greener pastures. His reasoning for why this is the case, however, is far from the truth. More than attractive infrastructure luring them elsewhere, chaos, suffocating urban sprawl, and a major economic downturn are pushing them to flee.

“The key driver of the ongoing out-migration is probably Turkey’s deep recession,” said Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and political science at Duke University. “Jobless people with roots in Anatolia are moving back to where they have family and friends prepared to help them. In a time of need, it’s relatively easier to get assistance in the environment where you grew up.”

It is no coincidence that Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayoral candidate from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), won a resounding victory during a time of outward migration. He’ll be the first Istanbul mayor in a quarter of a century who is not Recep Tayyip Erdogan or someone from the party. Their rule has been characterized by wasteful spending and $100 million in grants to religious organizations close to the AKP in recent years. What’s more, as the Turkish lira has weakened, Istanbul has become exceedingly expensive. Rents are much higher there than in other urban areas in the country, and inflation has made basic goods out of reach for millions of residents.

The hardship was evident in the weeks leading up to the first round of the mayoral vote in March, when dozens of stands were installed throughout the city selling vegetables subsidized by the AKP-led municipal government. These stands, popular with residents on tight budgets, were instantly dismantled after Imamoglu’s narrow victory in that election, the results of which were subsequently canceled, paving the way for last Sunday’s rout. The statistics were quite striking: Imamoglu captured 28 of Istanbul’s 39 districts, including a handful of conservative districts that tend to vote AKP. Although he won by a margin of only 13,000 in March, this time around Imamoglu prevailed by 800,000 votes. As hundreds of thousands of people are leaving Istanbul, those who are staying put have decided that their city needs new blood.

Kuran agreed. “Istanbul is Turkey’s economic engine,” he said. “It houses a highly disproportionate share of the country’s richest and most educated people. Such people value political stability as well as political freedoms. They also have skills that are transportable. A well-trained academic or physician can work elsewhere. Likewise, a creative entrepreneur can implement his or her innovations somewhere else.”

Indeed, droves of white-collar professionals, freelancers, and early retirees have left the city for coastal areas, particularly the city of Izmir and its surrounding areas. Following a comprehensive crackdown after the failed 2016 coup, increasing numbers of students, professors, dismissed civil servants, and other dissidents have left the city and country, some on airplanes with a one-way ticket and others via illegal smuggling routes. With money and talent flowing out of the city, the potentially devastating effects of brain drain remain yet to be seen.

Modern Istanbul has been a city of migrants ever since waves of people from throughout Anatolia began showing up there in the 1950s. Then just under 1 million, Istanbul’s population ballooned to 10 million by 2000. By 2018, it boasted over 15 million. The city became a brilliant patchwork of cultures, dialects, and cuisines from all over the country. Migrants built sprawling, informal settlements in every corner, many of which developed into long-standing neighborhoods with formal apartment blocks. Others were demolished to make way for the megaprojects, skyscrapers, and luxurious housing developments that have multiplied throughout the city, particularly under the leadership of Erdogan and the AKP.

AKP-aligned contractors profited from the construction boom, but “the concretization has taken away from the city’s charm,” Kuran argued. “This is not to say that Istanbul is no longer a beautiful and fascinating city. It remains one of the world’s wonders. But to Turks who know what it was like 20, 30, or 40 years ago, the concretization is an abomination. It is a source of great pain and anger. It has increased the incentive to move to a relatively green city and more open spaces.”

The fact that Istanbulites insisted on electing new leadership for the second time this year reflects the desire for a more livable city where resources are used to benefit the people, rather than individuals and institutions close to the government. Imamoglu won the hearts of voters with his warm demeanor, inclusive appeal, and issue-oriented campaign strategy, vowing to be the mayor of each and every Istanbulite.

Though Kuran says it is too early to tell if Imamoglu’s victory will reverse the trend of outward migration from Turkey’s largest city to other parts of the country, it is nonetheless an encouraging development for a city that has been squeezed to its limit.

Paul Osterlund is a freelance journalist and writer based in Istanbul.

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