Istanbul’s ‘migrant map reflects voting behavior’

Istanbul’s ‘migrant map reflects voting behavior’

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Istanbul’s ‘migrant map reflects voting behavior’

The social geographic map of Istanbul shows the city is divided into two parts with distinct lifestyles and political convictions, said urban expert Professor Murat Güvenç. ‘The AKP’s 16 years in office have not changed the basic dividing line which has been there for 25 years,’ said Güvenç.

Political polarization is visible in Istanbul’s socioeconomic map and it has been there for 25 years, according to urban expert Murat Güvenç.

Istanbul has grown rapidly over recent decades due to migrant flows but different social groups have largely preferred to segregate themselves behind certain barriers, said Güvenç, the director of Kadir Has University’s Istanbul Studies Center, adding that this has remained largely unchanged during the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Tell us about, which is now also available in English.

This is a website that enables the user to make queries about the social geography of the greater Istanbul metropolitan area, including all its provinces of Istanbul. The city has 1,000 neighborhoods and a population of 15 to 16 million. The website shows the socioeconomic profile of different neighborhoods and the municipal services provided. It is a first of its kind, sponsored by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, undertaken by Turkish Economic and Social Science Foundation (TESEV) and Kadir Has University.

How reliable is the data?

The lack of available data on the economic status of neighborhoods is a chronic problem in Turkey. We gathered the data on real estate values, which are periodically published as the municipalities refer to this data to collect taxes. We downloaded the assessed real estate tax values of 82,000 streets in total.

And what do you observe about the data you gathered?

Experts in urban sociology have for 25 years noted a sharp contrast in Istanbul in terms of the incomes and social profiles of the population. They are seeing “two Istanbuls.” The E5 highway that comes from the east and extends to the first bridge over the Bosphorus effectively divides the population into two. We have one Istanbul to the north of this highway and another Istanbul to the south between the sea and the highway. The E5 acts as a kind of wall separating two different strata of the urban population. Over time, new bridges and new housing projects have been constructed, the city has grown, but this very basic dividing line continues. What was noted 25 years ago is still valid: While Istanbul grows the social geography preserves its original dividing lines.

How does the two parts differ from each other?

Beyond the E5 highway the land prices are distinctively low and income levels are lower in terms of social services. The classes in primary schools are significantly larger and the green spaces are fewer. It is mostly migrants from Anatolia who live in these areas, likely employed in the service sector or as blue collar workers. Employers or white collar occupations are underrepresented in this area and so we have totally different lifestyles and daily lives.

Aren’t these types of divides common in other cities of the world?

This is a phenomenon called segregation. People who have similar lifestyles tend to cluster spatially and this generates a divide between blue collar and white collar people, between the well-educated and the poor or moderately educated.

These types of enclaves exist in all major cities. But elsewhere you see such different enclaves in something like patchwork; you have different areas of the well-off and in between you may have more working class areas. But in Istanbul, when you look at the map, you see that patterns of differentiation are very visible.

What political conclusions can we can derive from this?

Looking at the electoral map of Istanbul, these two areas vote for different parties. The E5 not only divides households with different social backgrounds, it also divides groups with different convictions. So the political polarization we are talking about is visible in Istanbul’s social map as well.

In most cities in Turkey, social groups tend to segregate themselves from the rest of the population by protecting themselves behind certain barriers. That is the case for Ankara too, where the road from Samsun to Istanbul divides the city in two. The same thing is true for Bursa and İzmir. The local identity of places is not something inherent to them, it is generated by the people who live there.

Istanbul’s ‘migrant map reflects voting behavior’

Do I understand this has been caused by the huge migration to big cities?

Yes, but it is also due to the huge difference in lifestyles in the country. These lifestyles do not always go hand in hand. The way women participate in the public sphere also has to do with values and religious beliefs.

Is this divide about urban versus rural?

You could say that. But it could be an over generalization because Istanbul receives migrants throughout Turkey and not every migrant comes from rural areas. Not everyone comes from central Anatolia. If you analyze the migrant profile in well-off areas, most of them come from metropolitan areas in Adana and Eskişehir and have moved to live in a relatively less well-off area. When you look at the migrant profile in Istanbul, 70 percent of those who come are not coming from rural but urban areas.

So it is not politicians but the people who are the source of polarization?

That is correct. It is not the politicians who generate polarization. Polarization is already there. Politicians act as the spokespeople for polarization.

Folr example, voting behavior in areas like Bakırköy, Kadıköy and Beşiktaş is very clear. They are currently the strongholds of the main opposition Republican People’s Party [CHP] but in the 1990s they voted for the right-wing neo-liberal Motherland Party [ANAP] and those voting for social democratic parties were in other parts of Istanbul.

What does not change are the boundaries of the places. The social divisions are there and politics reflect these differences. Politicians see and sometimes exploit these differences, but the basic division lines in Turkey have been there since the beginning of the multiparty system and the same political ecology continues. We have had distinctive electoral preferences in central Anatolia since the 1950s and these preferences are very different from what you see in the Aegean.

Istanbul has changed a lot under the AKP’s 16 years in office.

There have been a lot of changes. The fringes for instance are no longer exclusively poor and migrant. We have rising a middle class but the basic differences in urban areas are still visible. All the developments that have taken place in the AKP period have not changed the basic lines of division.

You claim that the success of political parties depends on their urban plans in their programs.

Urban programs of different parties are very influential in their success. Until Turgut Özal [the late prime minister and later president], major metropolitan areas like Istanbul, Ankara, and İzmir were run by social democrats. But then Özal declared an amnesty [on illegal construction], which legalized former squatter housing. It went hand in hand with the distribution of title deeds. When people saw this offer, they shifted their political positions and social democrats lost metropolitan areas. Today, the party in power is also proposing an amnesty. This is a very influential urban policy.

What do you think about the outcome of the upcoming June 24 election?

The result is prone to surprises. The maps we are talking about will preserve their boundaries but the spokespeople or representatives may change.


Professor Murat Güvenç graduated from the Department of City and Regional Planning of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University in 1976. He received his Masters and PhD from the same university, where he later taught from 1983 to 2005. Güvenç was the Vice President of Istanbul Bilgi University between 2007 and 2010. He established and directed the Center for Urban Studies at Istanbul Şehir University between 2010 and 2014, where he carried out a comprehensive study on internal migration sponsored by the Scientific and Technical Council of Turkey (TÜBITAK). He also carried out research projects on social and economic urban history and geography of the Istanbul, Izmir and Bursa metropolitan areas.

Since 2014 he has been associated with Kadir Has University, where he also directs the Istanbul Studies Center.