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Turkey Leader Faces Big Test in Mayoral Race 25 mars 2014

Posted by Acturca in Istanbul, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Wall Street Journal Europe (USA) March 25, 2014, p. 1

By Joe Parkinson, Istanbul

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise to prominence began when he became mayor of this storied city 20 years ago.

Now, with a mushrooming corruption scandal battering his support, Mr. Erdogan’s political future may hinge on the outcome of the election in this city of 15 million people.

In municipal elections across Turkey on Sunday, no race is likely to test the popularity of Mr. Erdogan and his Islamist- rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, ahead of national elections this summer more than the mayor’s contest in Istanbul.

The incumbent Kadir Topbas, backed by Mr. Erdogan, is facing off against Mustafa Sarigul, the well-coiffed candidate for the secularist Republican People’s Party, or CHP, who has governed Istanbul’s wealthy Sisli district for 15 years.

Acutely aware of the political risks of losing control of Turkey’s commercial and cultural capital, Mr. Erdogan has thrown himself into campaigning, delivering dozens of speeches to hundreds of thousands of supporters in the city, lauding the AKP’s economic achievements and launching scathing attacks against Mr. Sarigul and his party.

“We will triumph in this great city,” the prime minister proclaimed during a two-hour speech at an election rally in Istanbul’s Yenikapi district on Sunday. “I don’t care who it is, I’m not listening. Even if the whole world stands up against us, I am obliged to takes measures to prevent attacks on our nation’s security,” added Mr. Erdogan, who served as Istanbul’s mayor from 1994 until 1998.

The stakes in Sunday’s voting have soared in recent weeks, due to mounting allegations of financial impropriety that Mr. Erdogan has sought to quash by overhauling the judiciary and purging the police of officials he deems nettlesome.

In the latest move to counter criticism, he banned the social- networking site Twitter last week, prompting a furious backlash from the opposition and drawing stern rebukes from Western capitals.

While the two names on Sunday’s Istanbul’s mayoral ballot will be those of Mr. Topbas and Mr. Sarigul, the swelling controversy surrounding Mr. Erdogan has made him the undeclared third candidate in the race.

Most recent polls show Mr. Topbas leading Mr. Sarigul, but the margin between them is narrowing, with some surveys saying the race is now too close to call.

A victory Mr. Topbas and the AKP in Istanbul on Sunday could encourage Mr. Erdogan to run for president in the country’s first direct presidential elections set for August. They also would be seen as an endorsement of the premier’s pugilistic response to the corruption probe.

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A defeat would embolden the prime minister’s secular and liberal opponents, who view Istanbul’s race as a possible steppingstone to challenge Mr. Erdogan nationally. It also could force the premier to change his party’s rules and stand instead for a fourth term as prime minister.

With the national mood increasingly polarized, either result could trigger nationwide street protests, which flared again this month, claiming the lives of a policeman in the eastern city of Tunceli and a 22year old man in Istanbul.

“Istanbul has a larger population than some European countries, has immense powers and the stakes couldn’t be higher. This is the race the country is watching and its result could trigger more unrest,” said Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University.

With campaigning climaxing this week, Istanbul’s incumbent mayor and his challenger have joined Mr. Erdogan in taking to the ancient streets, bazaars and waterways of this city, in a bid to muster votes.

Mr. Sarigul, a former businessman with a talent for sound bites, says his momentum in the polls has rattled the premier. He alleges the government has pressured television channels against covering his campaign and is calling for international election monitors.

“We know the prime minister is nervous and we want to make sure the vote is fair,” Mr. Sarigul said, as he shuttled across Istanbul in his campaign bus. “The media may belong to Erdogan now, but the streets belong to us.”

Mr. Sarigul, whose political ambitions are believed to extend well beyond Istanbul’s city hall, also faces obstacles. In January, a Turkish court froze his financial assets, supposedly because of an unpaid debt in 1998. He says the decree was politically motivated.

Mr. Topbas, who turned down requests for an interview, is stressing continuity after a decadelong construction boom that has produced in Istanbul the sometimes jarring sight of high- rise towers alongside the city’s gilded minarets.

To date, few pundits have dared to predict a loss for Mr. Erdogan in Istanbul or in the country, where the AKP remains the most popular party.

But even though the party has transformed Turkey over the past decade, a sense of fatigue has grown. Many Turks, especially in Istanbul and other Western- oriented cities, increasingly see Mr. Erdogan as an autocrat bent on meddling in their private lives.

“Istanbul is the key to wounding Mr. Erdogan. But people are angry and whatever happens, I’m worried about the future,” said Ibrahim Tugral, a 30- year-old Istanbul resident who says he will back Mr. Sarigul.

The race’s potent political symbolism isn’t lost on either candidate: Istanbul isn’t only the city that launched the premier’s career, but his hometown and inspiration for an AKP philosophy that identifies more with the city’s Ottoman heritage than with the capital Ankara, crucible of the secular republic.

It is also the wellspring of the protests that spread across the nation last summer. Those protests flared after Mr. Erdogan approved the razing of Gezi Park—one of central Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces—to make way for a commercial complex styled after an Ottoman barracks.

The premier’s consuming interest in Istanbul’s affairs and love of grand construction projects remains a vital dynamic of the race.

Many Turks say the hundreds of tower blocks and shopping malls built in Istanbul in the past decade are a testament to Mr. Erdogan’s rule. Others say the construction is a tangible expression of how Mr. Erdogan’s bid to re- engineer Turkey has fueled high-level corruption.

For Ismail Kandis, a 41-year-old baker who has seen his business expand to employ 11 people, the prime minister’s achievements are paramount.

“Yes there are headlines about corruption and rumors of an economic crisis, but look at how much has changed in the last 10 years. For Turks, stability is the greatest commodity and Mr. Erdogan has provided it.”

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