Turkey’s commercial capital, Istanbul, is in the grips of economic turmoil, which raises the prospect of the city’s local administration changing hands after more than two decades of dominance by political Islam.

Turkey ushered in the new year under the mounting stress of economic crisis and local elections looming on March 31. The stress is felt heavily in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city and commercial capital, which contributes 31% of the country’s gross domestic product and harbors 22% of the labor force and is now the epicenter of the economic tremors.

Under the 16-year rule of the Justice and Development Party, construction became the engine of economic growth and Istanbul drew the largest investments of the sector, ranging from sprawling housing complexes and business high-rises to countless urban infrastructures and “megaprojects” conducted as public-private partnerships. Istanbul’s economic rent and public wealth was appetite-whetting. Rent-seeking proliferated and businesspeople close to the AKP grabbed the biggest shares.

Turkey’s political Islam movement, whose hold on power has reached nearly 25 years at the municipal level and 16 years in the central government, made Istanbul the main worksite for its own growth and then increasingly for the building of a new regime. The construction-centered drive advanced problem-free for roughly a decade after the AKP’s coming to power, but began to stumble in 2014. Today, it is in turbulence amid a fully “homemade” crisis, with the strongest jolts felt in Istanbul.

Turkey’s economic growth under the AKP relied on foreign funds, mainly external borrowing of some $460 billion, with the funds used mostly for domestic consumption. When the inflow of funds decreased before grinding to a halt in 2018, the crisis became inevitable.

Not surprisingly, the earliest blows of the crisis hit the construction sector, where the first downticks in employment were seen. After an extraordinary profit bonanza until 2015, homes in Istanbul had begun to depreciate in real terms, with price increases trailing at least 10 percentage points behind overall inflation. The housing woes in the city particularly upset builders close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In a bid to revitalize real estate sales, Ankara has opposed hiking interest rates and offered incentives to promote purchases, but none of those measures have yielded results.

Offices in Istanbul’s Levent and Maslak districts, the city’s main business centers, have seen a fast decline in occupancy rates, with rents also nosediving. In many of the once-mushrooming malls, shops are either empty or struggling to stay afloat with very low net sales. For many, the sales volume can no longer meet rents despite a presidential decree in September banning rental contracts in foreign currency.

The so-called megaprojects, built by both local and foreign contractors, are also in dire straits. The third bridge over the Bosporus and the new airport, erected — by flouting zoning laws — in Istanbul’s north, where the city’s scarce forests and water basins are, remain fraught with problems. The third bridge, inaugurated in 2016, remains largely idle, while the new airport is hit by delays, facing an uncertain future. One more megaproject — an undersea tunnel to the city’s south — is underperforming. The profit guarantees offered to the builders in the project contracts have already placed hefty burdens on the central government budget.

The turmoil in Istanbul’s construction sector has spilled over to other areas, affecting big and small companies alike. Even the metropolitan municipality is in a serious debt crisis.

Istanbul is also Turkey’s financial hub, and banks are similarly in a bottleneck, marked by a rapid decline in employment figures. While the contracting economy bears heavily on domestic trade, it is deeply shaking the advertising and media sectors, two indispensable links in marketing; layoffs are on the rise in this area, which is an important one for white collar workers.

The tourism sector, which is trying to keep the city afloat, has come to cater mostly to Middle Eastern visitors. Due to the Turkish lira’s dramatic depreciation, sightseeing, accommodation and dining in Istanbul are now going for a song.

Among ordinary Istanbulites, the rising costs of living and unemployment worries are the main topics of conversation nowadays. In 2018, Turkey’s consumer inflation hit 20.3%. The rate for Istanbul was not much better, standing at 19%. The country’s non-agricultural unemployment, or urban unemployment, was 13.5% in September, tending upward. Given that Istanbul’s jobless rate is usually 2 percentage points higher than the national average, urban unemployment in the city has reached more than 15%.

Now that the March 31 local elections coincide with a serious economic crisis, Istanbulites are expected to largely influence the message of the electorate. Arguably, the long municipal reign in Istanbul of political Islam itself owes much to opportunities spawned by crisis. The Islamist movement originally appealed only to traditionally conservative Istanbul districts such as Uskudar and Eyup, but its voter base grew notably in the 1990s as its message resonated with migrant masses from provincial Anatolia, which the winds of globalization had propelled to the city. While the left-wing and social democrat parties failed to reach out to the impoverished masses swarming the city’s outskirts, political Islam managed to fill the vacuum.

In the local polls in 1994, which was a crisis year, the four center-right and center-left parties mustered 70% of the vote in Istanbul, but because they did not care to form alliances, the Welfare Party, to which Erdogan belonged at the time, grabbed the metropolitan municipality with just 25% of the vote, marking the beginning of the 25-year dominance of political Islam. The 1999 election was basically a replay, as centrist parties failed to learn a lesson from their previous defeat, letting the Islamists retain Istanbul with 27% of the vote.

In the November 2002 general elections, the AKP, the new party of the Islamists, came in first with 34% of the vote and was able to form the government alone, courtesy of the intricacies of Turkey’s electoral system. In the 2004 local elections, the AKP won Istanbul with 45% of the vote.

In the next local polls, in 2009 — a year in which Turkey’s economy shrank nearly 5% amid global financial woes — the AKP was still the winner, but its support dropped to 38% in the overall vote and 40% in Istanbul, which was 5 percentage points less than what the party had garnered in the 2007 parliamentary polls. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), meanwhile, got 33%, reducing the AKP’s lead to 5 percentage points, which was a clear but inconclusive repercussion of the economic crisis.

Now, a similar crisis climate prevails ahead of the municipal polls. The opposition is rather optimistic, given that the AKP got 42% in the general elections in June 2018, a notable decline from nearly 50% in November 2015. Moreover, it had to seek an electoral alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party, with the pair barely managing 50.7% together.

The CHP, which reckons the AKP’s support could have dropped further as the crisis deepened in the past six months, is hopeful of winning Istanbul with the support of other opposition parties. The AKP, meanwhile, appears highly alarmed over the prospect of losing the city. Erdogan nominated parliament speaker and ex-premier Binali Yildirim to run for the mayor’s office, but in order to keep the speaker’s seat in case of a defeat, he proclaimed that Yildirim did not have to resign from his current post, although this violates the constitution.

Such unlawful behavior compounds worries over the integrity of the elections, stemming from serious vote-rigging allegations in recent years. The opposition appears close to victory in Istanbul this time, but whether it will be allowed to triumph remains questionable.


Written by Mustafa Sönmez