As countries representing nearly half the world’s population go to the polls this year, democracy faces an existential test. It is not just autocrats in places like Russia and Iran who are rejecting democratic norms and promoting authoritarian governance. Elected leaders in the West are undermining the very institutions that brought them to power as well. The news isn’t all bad though. Even as more and more countries move toward authoritarianism, big cities across the world are becoming strongholds for pro-democracy forces. The mayors of Visegrad capitals (Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest) were among the first to take action when they established the Pact of Free Cities in 2019 — a global network of cities determined to stand up for democracy.

The recent local elections in Israel and Turkey gave pro-democracy actors a further boost as well. In Israel, where municipal elections were held in February, the liberal camp not only won again in Tel Aviv, the country’s second biggest city, but made strides in other major cities as well. Following a year of pro-democracy protests against the government's attempted overhaul of the judiciary, liberal agendas dominated many of the local campaigns and sparked political renewal. In Turkey, too, the democratic opposition to the country’s autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, held onto Istanbul, the nation’s largest city, and captured others in the March local elections. So the question is, can cities lead a democratic revival in countries that have experienced a democratic recession? Are mayors truly “democracy’s best hope”?

According to a recent study, although the concept of democracy remains widely popular across the world, people are increasingly skeptical that democratic governments can deliver on the issues that impact their daily lives, such as dealing with climate change, addressing violence, and meeting basic needs like food. Local governments can change that perception. Since they are closest to the people, especially in highly centralized states, they are much more in tune with what people really need. By providing efficient and effective public services, they can restore faith in democracy by proving that it works.

Local governments can also help people strengthen the muscle of democracy by encouraging local engagement on municipal decision making. Especially in countries where the democratic space has shrunk under strongmen, by offering a significant counter-weight to the excessive powers of central governments, democratic municipalities can give the people a taste of what it means to have a say on the issues that affect their lives.

Local elections in Turkey and Israel offer an opportunity to see how municipalities can lead the fight for democracy. Comparing Turkey and Israel might not immediately make sense. Top democracy indexes rate Turkey as “not free” while Israel is considered “free.” Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, however, Israeli democracy is eroding. In response, Israeli mayors, who were previously wary of harshly criticizing the central government so as not to jeopardize their funding, are taking an unprecedented stance against Netanyahu’s attacks on democracy. The mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, played a critical role in pushing back against anti-democratic moves by Netanyahu's far-right coalition. Huldai and other mayors defied attempts by coalition members to interfere with secular and liberal schooling in their cities, and actively supported the massive wave of pro-democracy protests across the country.

In Turkey, too, key municipalities have been won by opposition figures who made restoring democracy central to their local agendas. Take Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, for instance. During his four-year tenure as the mayor of the country’s biggest city, he took steps to promote liberal norms, such as women rights, minority rights, social justice, and the rule of law, which have been undermined by the country’s autocratic leader. After Erdoğan withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, the landmark international human rights treaty on preventing violence against women, İmamoğlu worked closely with UN Women, the global champion for gender equality, to integrate women into the labor force and raise awareness about the government’s failure to protect them. İmamoğlu also sought to promote multiculturalism. While Erdoğan’s pact with Turkish nationalists led to a blanket crackdown on a wide network of Kurdish nationalists, İmamoğlu defied the government’s restrictions and offered Kurdish language courses at municipality-run education centers. The municipality introduced new measures to address poverty at the local level as well.

Mayors in Israel and Turkey’s major cities see a larger role for themselves than just providing basic services like filling potholes and collecting garbage. Israeli mayors call themselves democracy’s “gatekeepers.” Istanbul mayor İmamoğlu sees his re-election, in a campaign that Erdoğan made a referendum on his tenure in office, as the end of one-man rule in Turkey. The question is, can liberal governance on the municipal level create a political infrastructure that will change dynamics in favor of pro-democracy actors at the national level? It is an uphill battle. Frictions between mayors and national leadership have already emerged in both countries. In Israel, Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich threatened not to cooperate with mayors who opposed some of his planned reforms. In Turkey, the central government deprived opposition-run municipalities of resources, and Erdoğan even used the courts to try to block İmamoğlu’s rise.

Despite these challenges, the mayors can turn their hold on these important cities into an opportunity to bring about change at the national level. They can use their offices as a testing ground to prove to voters that democracy works and that they can govern successfully. Big cities across the world are becoming democratic bulwarks and their mayors may indeed be democracy’s best bet.


Gönül Tol is the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program and a senior fellow with the Black Sea Program.

Nimrod Goren is the senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute.

Photo by YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

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