As populism continues to spread across Europe, countries on the continent’s fringes could offer a blueprint for how to fight back. In Turkey, Hungary and several Balkan states, opposition blocs have, against the odds, won local elections in major cities in recent years. Now they’re using those successes as a springboard to national victory.
In this month’s elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Social Democrat Denis Becirovic (pictured) won the Bosniak seat in the country’s tripartite presidency, the first time that a candidate of his party has done so. The Social Democrats are in a liberal coalition with the multiethnic Nasa Stranka, which won Sarajevo’s mayorship in 2020 and the prime ministership of Sarajevo Canton a year later. In Kosovo, the leftist Vetevendosje won Pristina before its leader, Albin Kurti, became prime minister in 2021 – the first premier not to have risen to power as a warlord.
Turkey’s opposition hopes that it can follow that pattern. Opposition candidates Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas won Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s two biggest cities, in local elections in 2019, ending 25 years of rule by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party. Now both mayors have been touted as future presidential candidates. While neither is likely to stand against Erdogan in next year’s elections, their success at a local level, including Istanbul’s award-winning scheme to help impoverished citizens pay their utility bills, has helped to burnish the opposition’s image.
It’s not a done deal. Cities tend to be more liberal and educated, with voting patterns to match. Spreading democratic messages to more conservative provinces is difficult, particularly since Erdogan’s government is tightening its grip on both social and traditional media. Progress can also be reversed: Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, was controlled by the opposition before sliding back to president Aleksandar Vucic’s party. But in top-down autocracies where regimes are seizing control of the media and institutions, fighting from the bottom up is the best strategy.
Hannah Lucinda Smith is Monocle’s Istanbul correspondent.