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Why big cities will ultimately prevail

LiveMint logoLiveMint 18-04-2017 Leonid Bershidsky

The growing divide between urbanites and rural residents is shaping politics everywhere, from Brexit to the rise of Donald Trump. On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received a mandate for more personalized rule from most of his country, but not from its big cities. Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir are responsible for about 46% of Turkey’s economic output and just 23% of its population. All three cities voted against Erdoğan’s emergency powers.

The powerless anger at being outvoted by provincials is familiar to people in big US cities. After voting overwhelmingly against Trump last November, they took to the streets to protest—just as many residents of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir did late on Sunday night. The same story is unfolding in Warsaw (which voted against the nationalist PiS party in 2015) and London (which voted against Brexit). Even in countries with authoritarian regimes firmly in place, big cities are relatively unhappy with them. Moscow has consistently delivered some of Vladimir Putin’s worst electoral results. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won everywhere in 2014, but it barely eked out a plurality in Budapest.

The urban-rural divide is often attributed to globalization’s winners living in cities while its losers decline outside of them. That’s somewhat simplistic. Erdoğan, the former mayor of Istanbul, had never lost an election there, but Turkey’s business capital rejected his constitutional changes by 51.4% of the vote. Brexiteers aren’t opposed to globalization or free trade; otherwise they wouldn’t be so enamoured with Singapore’s example. Putin, Orbán and PiS ideologue Jarosław Kaczyński aren’t isolationists, either. The gap between the big cities and the heartland, which exists in most countries, isn’t just about globalization and its spoils. It’s also about two different kinds of communal identity that are increasingly difficult to reconcile within polities.

One is the traditional nation-state patriotism. A political language exists in every country to appeal to it, and those politicians who speak it more convincingly win the rural vote. It’s the language of military strength, adherence to tradition, often the yearning for a past golden age.

The energy behind strong city identities, on the other hand, is not really globalist or cosmopolitan. Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell and Hebrew University of Jerusalem political philosopher Avner de-Shalit, authors of a 2011 book about city identities, have named it “civicism”.

I am more of a Muscovite than a Russian; now that I live in Berlin, I feel like much more of a Berliner than a German. A poll revealed several years ago that more people in London are attached to the city than to the UK. I’ve met people who consider themselves New Yorkers first and Americans a distant second. Istanbul is an ancient metropolis where a local identity is often stronger than the national one. One could call it more cosmopolitan, but it’s also a city with a distinct soul unlike that of all the places that have influenced it going back a couple of thousand years. That urban soul requires a more decentralized and chaotic government system than the one Erdoğan has pushed through with the referendum. So, many Istanbul residents who backed Erdoğan in previous elections have drawn the line at backing his most recent reform.

“Civicism” doesn’t have a defined political language except that of liberalism. A candidate who stresses openness, tolerance, even permissiveness, usually does better with big city dwellers. In a metropolis, a live-and-let-live attitude is the basis of survival. Strict religious rules and local customs are relaxed to accommodate diversity and reduce tension among neighbours. Besides, the competitiveness of coexisting with millions of others at close quarters makes big-city dwellers likely to question authority and tradition.

The problem with appealing to city dwellers is that many electoral systems are tilted against them. The US electoral college is a vivid example. And politicians who win with rural audiences do their best to strengthen their geographic advantage. The PiS now seeks to expand Warsaw’s electoral boundaries, adding 32 surrounding communities to the city so it could seize control of the capital’s city council in the next election. Erdoğan, too, has been accused of gerrymandering as his party has sought to build an electoral geography that would help it retain power.

These barriers to the political power of cities, however, aren’t likely to help in the long run. Urbanization has been an unstoppable trend throughout the world. The rural population has stopped growing, but the UN predicts that the cities will add 1.5 billion residents in the next 15 years. Turkey’s population was only 25% urban in 1950; 75% of Turks are city dwellers today. And the bigger the city, the less appetite there is for the rural variety of nationalism and for strong-hand rule.

Erdoğan’s loss in the biggest cities is a sign that there are limits to his project. Pushing for a more authoritarian system, with fewer checks and balances, could set off riots in the major cities, something Erdoğan will probably be careful to avoid: He needs to calm the country down after all the harshness of its post-coup state of emergency and a highly contentious referendum campaign. Ignoring the will of the cities means swimming against the demographic tide; it would be a short-sighted strategy that might allow Erdoğan a few more years of dominance but would eventually lead to violent change. Bloomberg

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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