City Governance and Democracy: Asking How in the Middle of Global and Domestic Challenges

By Gülşen Doğan, BROAD-ER PhD Researcher, Political Science and International Relations, Koç University, Istanbul

In this post-Westphalian system, cities are increasingly challenging the global authority of nation-states and assuming the pivotal role in decision-making and implementation of policies pertaining to global and national issues at the supra-national level. However, authoritarian populist governments are increasingly striving to centralize decision-making, divert attention from the country’s real problems and leave solutions elusive through intensifying polarization. This strategy enables the governments to infiltrate the mainstream discourse and legitimate their poor performance in the eyes of the electorate by hindering the convergence of different segments of society through a shared discourse. Admittedly, polarization has been a long-standing problem in many countries. Governments exploit the traditional cleavages by propagating a narrative of the oppressed masses and the treacherous elite who oppress them. Consequently, they have devised a strategy to foster a collective “identity” and “emotional bond” among partisan voters by engendering an affective polarization. The impact of this phenomenon on city governance remains to be explored.

Cities Under Multiple Pressures

Coupled with the democratic fragility of the international system, challenges such as economic hardships, the refugee crisis, growing inequalities, rising living costs, declining living standards, oppression, and the deterioration of democracy and freedom present significant problems on both national and global scales. The adverse consequences of populism and the pandemic have yet to diminish[1]. Concurrently, the invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated the economic recession and energy crisis and began to affect the world one after another. Despite the global fragility of democracy and the multitude of crises, there is currently a lack of political will to effectively address these challenges. Populism continues to permeate European countries, with the National Unity Party in France gaining even greater strength. The decline of democracy in Poland and Hungary persists. Right-wing parties have secured a majority in the Swedish election. Similarly, the United States remains susceptible to a resurgence of right-wing populism due to high polarization and the popularity of Donald Trump among the electorate. The presidency of Joe Biden was expected to usher in a period of renewed defense of liberal democracy in the US. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns regarding domestic issues such as the global energy crisis, inflation, and the systemic struggle between the US and the Russia-China bloc.

At the local level, metropolitan cities that experience substantial levels of immigration undergo a profound transformation and subsequently take on a distinct form. These cities serve as the converging point for numerous permanent or temporary migration flows and the movement of individuals. This phenomenon of mobility turn has been significantly influencing the contemporary and future landscape of metropolitan regions. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data shows that “most refugees live in urban areas, not camps”[2]. This raises a significant question regarding the access to social and public services for refugees residing in urban areas, as it poses greater challenges compared to refugee camps where these services are provided by either the government or humanitarian aid organizations. Simultaneously, this necessitates the implementation of sustainable solutions, compelling cities to incorporate refugees into their social services, thereby making them the key participants in the processes of migration governance that are dominated by central authority. Nevertheless, in numerous countries, populist authoritarian regimes fuel popular discontent surrounding migration and refugees during their political campaigns. It is noteworthy to consider whether asylum seekers or international migrants who have arrived in cities due to political or economic circumstances perceive the host country as their ultimate destination, thus influencing the cultural fabric of these cities in terms of permanence or transience. Furthermore, with the advent of globalization and the prevalence of hybrid remote work environments due to COVID-19, individuals have established economic ties abroad, thereby impacting the city in question. The inclination of healthcare professionals, academics, or students in authoritarian nations to forge social connections remotely as a result of economic or political motivations also holds the potential to reshape the future of cities.

Urban centers therefore encounter a vast array of threats due to their obligation to react to both international and national predicaments, all while operating within constraints of limited economic and human resources as well as legal jurisdiction.

In the face of these difficulties, cities have integrated crises into their own agenda as they empower the cities to leverage legal capabilities and socio-economic resources, while fostering cooperation and coordination among various levels of government. Noteworthy examples of regional and international city initiatives include the international Mayors Migration Council, the Mayors Mechanism, the European EUROCITIES, and GMF’s transatlantic Cities Managing Migration[3]. Without a doubt, these advancements place a significant emphasis on the role of city agency in fortifying democracy and facilitating the potential for authoritarian reversibility in certain nations. In simpler terms, city agency can serve as a pathway for civil society and citizens to actively engage in decision-making processes, as these groups possess greater ease in accessing and overseeing local governance through civic spaces. This, in turn, enhances democracy and civic life through increased participation in local decision-making[4]. However, there are also examples such as Brazil where the decentralization of power exacerbates existing inequalities by establishing new power centers, thus impeding the progress of democracy.

Cities have urgent problems that need to be resolved considering limited physical infrastructures, basic resources and urban planning. From a global perspective, the world has been observing an unstable and unpredictable global system, exacerbated by socio-economic inequalities intensified by the pandemic, the rise of populism, and the emergence of the Russia-China alliance challenging the Western-led liberal democratic order. At the domestic level, inflation, unemployment, and escalating climate risks pose threats to all. The distribution of income has further deteriorated as the general population experiences impoverishment, while the circumstances faced by immigrants have become unbearable. Over time, democracy and freedom have undergone a gradual erosion in numerous nations. In a world-historical context, polycrises came to light and pushed us to question the current governance and social relations norms in politics and policy decision-making.

Consequently, the need for comprehensive planning at the global, national, and local levels becomes more imperative. Particularly, the city agenda should primarily focus on addressing the following areas:  citizens’ demands: How do socio-economic problems impact the daily lives of city residents?; incumbent’s strategy: How does the incumbent develop its strategies, narratives, and programmatic agendas?; complementary policymaking: In addition to the incumbent and in collaboration with local and global actors, how can local governments propose complementary policies to address global and domestic challenges? Still, it remains uncertain as to whether authoritarian populists are prepared for these transformations. The relationship between populist nationalization and centralization strategies presents challenges for city agencies and places pressure on cities to assume greater responsibility and accessibility for urgent matters. This particularly raises concerns about the collaboration between central and local governments in unitary states, leading to the emergence of multi-level governance and tensions between the center and periphery[5].


[1] Richard Youngs. (September 1, 2022). “COVID-19 and democratic resilience”, from

[2] UNHCR. (2021) 10 Facts about Refugees.

[3] Christiane Heimann, Janina Stürner-Siovitz and Paul Costello (2021). Cities Managing Migration: the State of Affairs. German Marshall Fund.

[4] Sylvia Bergh. (2004). Democratic Decentralisation and Local Participation: A Review of Recent Research. Development in Practice, 14(6), 780–790.

[5] Vilde Hernes (2017) Central coercion or local autonomy? A comparative analysis of policy instrument choice in refugee settlement policies, Local Government Studies, 43:5, 798-819