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  • Dilemmas of Subnational Democracy under Authoritarianism:Istanbul's Metropolitan Municipality
  • Kerem Öktem (bio)

can subnational democracy survive or even flourish under the conditions of an autocratic national government? This is the key challenge confronting the opposition mayors voted into office in Turkey's local elections of June 2019. It is also the central question of this paper, which examines the case of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (Istanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi, IBB). The IBB was won in 2019 by a broad coalition of parties centered around Ekrem İmamoğlu of the Republican People's Party (CHP). This transfer of power occurred after a quarter century of rule by Islamist parties; the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) ruled from 1994 to 2002 and was superseded by the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), which took power in 2002 and witnessed the progression of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from metropolitan mayor to prime minister, and eventually, president. The opposition win came as a surprise to both the central government and the opposition parties, and at a juncture when a rapid process of democratic backsliding and "pernicious polarization" (Somer et al. 2021) had advanced to the point that Turkey's status even as "competitive authoritarian" was being questioned. Esen and Gumuscu (2019) argue that the 2019 elections [End Page 501] constituted a turning point, which reinstated the "competitive" in Turkey's authoritarian politics.

In this paper, I examine the case of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and the attempt to create a democratic polity under the conditions of authoritarianism. With this goal in mind, I engage with a niche in the democratization literature that looks at subnational democracies in authoritarian settings, suggesting that the case lends itself to three interpretative lenses: "democratic enclaves" (Gilley 2010) suggest that some forms of democratic process can survive on the subnational level even under conditions of authoritarianism, and "springboard politics" (Lucardi 2016) pertains to the expectation that opposition municipalities serve as power bases from which opposition leaders and parties seek to expand their power. A third frame pertains to the dynamics of political survival under the "nested games of democratization by elections" (Schedler 2002). I argue that these three dynamics are present in the case of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. At the same time, they are also at the root of a set of democratic dilemmas that subnational opposition politics face under conditions of authoritarianism, and which may force opposition politicians to compromise on core values such as transparency and accountability, and lead them prematurely to a jump into national politics.

The conceptual discussion is followed by an empirical case study. First, I submit to a close reading the IBB's flagship print publication, the Istanbul Bulletin (Istanbul Bülteni), to reconstruct notions of democracy under the CHP administration and contrast them with those of the AKP administration that preceded it. Secondly, I review these notions based on interviews I conducted with heads of departments and employees of the municipality, with leading cadres and activists of the Istanbul provincial party organization of the Republican People's Party, and with party cadres in charge of local government.1 In the conclusion, I explore the extent to which a subnational power base can reinvigorate the opposition and create the dynamics of a "springboard politics" towards a transfer of power on the national [End Page 502] level. I also look at the risks the policy of democratic enclaves and the politics of survival may hold for the future.


Turkey is a unitary state with relatively little space for the devolution of powers. The majority of public services, from education to health, are executed by the respective ministries and their provincial offices. Since the 1970s, however, there has also been a gradual consolidation of local democracy and competition between central state institutions and cities in terms of services and competencies. Due to legal reforms in the 1980s, and then again during the AKP era, a two-level system of urban governance was instituted for the country's major metropolises (Zengin 2014), which since 2012 have come to include also the rural sections of the provinces in which they are based (Alkan 2015; Akilli...