Migrating from Turkey’s governing block

Migrating from Turkey’s governing block

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action,” writes Ian Fleming in Goldfinger. Since I am not James Bond, I’m inclined to replace “enemy action” with “pattern,” but it works just the same, and for me, the 2019 election in Turkey was that magical third time. Let me explain.

Turkey is a country of migrants. A hundred years ago, migrants from the edges of the crumbling Ottoman Empire gathered in Anatolia and took a stance, and that’s what Turkey is. That’s how we salvaged a country out of the calamities of WWI. Turkey is a refugee project.

Then started the mass exodus of Turks from rural to urban areas. In the early 1960s, when I was born, only 30 percent of Turks lived in urban centers. Today that figure has surpassed 75 percent. Internal migration has been the country’s economic growth engine in the 20th century. As they moved, people traded their agricultural work for factory jobs. Total manufacturing industry exports increased from their 1980 level of $2 billion to $150 billion today. Internal migration made Turkey an industrial country.

But no more. The Turkish economic miracle is out of magic powder. People don’t know it, but if you ask me, that’s why everyone is so anxious. Think of it this way: Turkey has 81 provinces. Seventeen provinces are on the receiving end of internal migration, while the remaining 64 are on the giving end. Let’s call recipients “cosmopolitan” and the others “non-cosmopolitan” provinces. People moved from non-cosmopolitan to cosmopolitan provinces mostly to find jobs, but also out of a sense of wanting to connect to the outside world. Cosmopolitan provinces sort of touch Europe – they offer more educated and higher earning neighbors, and they’re also where Turkey’s higher-end goods destined for EU markets are produced.

In the 2014 local elections, the governing AKP had majorities in both cosmopolitan and non-cosmopolitan provinces of 56 and 67 percent, respectively (for district and provincial councils). In the 2018 general election, it lost its majority in cosmopolitan provinces, with the numbers being 48 and 58 percent, respectively. In the 2019 local election, the trend continued, with the AKP getting 46 percent in cosmopolitan and 57 percent in non-cosmopolitan areas. Remember, third time’s a pattern. 

What does that mean in terms of budget? Istanbul, which gets 71 percent of municipality budgets in Turkey, is due to be controlled by the opposition in the coming five years. Looking at the electoral map as a whole, opposition mayors will be presiding over cities that make up more than 70 percent of the Turkish economy

This transition shows the depth of anxiety felt by urban Turks. This goes far beyond Turkey’s recent economic difficulties. I recommend the 2014 “Turkey Transitions” report of the World Bank. It outlines how “the country will need to find new sources of growth as the benefits of structural change [i.e., internal migration] start to peter out… Productivity growth has slowed markedly since 2007 and growth has been associated with rising external imbalances.” Looking for just one word to define the recent balance of payments crisis? It’s structural. That is why Turkey needs a strong structural reform agenda – a new “business plan” if you will – to jumpstart its economy. 

But wait, you may say, didn’t the government announce a structural transformation agenda just this past week? Doesn’t that give me any hope? No. Thus the anxiety festers. How, you may again ask, do Turks handle such situations? Being a pragmatic people, they migrate, either from one place to another, or from one political bloc to another, slowly but steadily.

Güven Sak,