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Originally published Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 6:12 AM

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A race for more than mayor of Istanbul

The capital of Turkey may be Ankara, but the beating heart of the country is Istanbul. Now that a corruption scandal has engulfed the prime minister’s inner circle and imperiled his hold on power, the spotlight is shifting to the coming race for Istanbul mayor.

The New York Times

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ISTANBUL — Engin Bayrak owns a hardware store near the shores of the Golden Horn waterway, where ferries connect the European and Asian sides of this vast city. He has witnessed for himself the vast improvements in services over the last decade as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party reshaped this city in their image.

“Clean water, reliable electricity — things we take for granted now — we didn’t have this before,” Bayrak said.

Even so, he says, now that a corruption scandal has exposed the dark side of the city’s steady growth, he will no longer support Erdogan or his party, known by the initials of its name in Turkish, AKP, in coming elections.

“It’s what came after this that has ruined this city,” he said. “The crazy projects are not crazy, they are greedy projects. While we got a few basic amenities, the government and Erdogan got rich. They built an empire on our land, without asking for our permission.”

The capital of Turkey may be Ankara, but the beating heart of the country is Istanbul. Now that a corruption scandal has engulfed the prime minister’s inner circle and imperiled Erdogan’s hold on power, the spotlight is shifting to the coming race for mayor. The contest will be held in March, and Erdogan’s secular and liberal opponents have increasingly looked to the election as the first step in challenging him at the ballot box.

Bayrak’s comments may not represent the majority’s views. There are still plenty of religiously conservative voters who seem, for now, to be willing to overlook the corruption allegations. But the comments reflect a growing unease among Istanbul residents about the ramifications of the AKP’s time in power that Erdogan’s opponents hope will reverberate come election time.

“The path to power”

Historically, the mayoralty of Istanbul has offered an important route to national power. This holds true not only for individuals like Erdogan, who once led the city and used the position as a springboard to prime minister, but also for the party that secures the office. Istanbul, with roughly 15 million people, represents nearly 20 percent of the country’s total population.

“Istanbul is the path to power in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You can put the country of Austria in it and still have room for a few other European countries,” he added, referring to Austria’s population.

The hope that Erdogan’s opponents have in wresting control of Istanbul from the AKP rests on Mustafa Sarigul, the candidate put forward by the main secular opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, known as the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secular founder of modern Turkey.

Sarigul is the mayor of the city’s Sisli district, a bustling business center with designer boutiques and expensive restaurants.

As a politician, Sarigul seems straight out of central casting: charismatic, energetic, with a good head of hair and who, as a young man, married in to the family of an important, secular politician.

In an interview, Sarigul hinted at the importance of Istanbul in the secular opposition’s ambitions to govern Turkey once again. “Our first target is Istanbul,” he said. “We are only talking about Istanbul right now.”

Sarigul’s opponent is not Erdogan, of course, but Mayor Kadir Topbas, a member of the AKP who won the last election, in 2009, with 44 percent of the vote. But Erdogan looms large in the race, not least because as prime minister he has often acted like the mayor, having a personal hand in local development issues, including the decision to raze Gezi Park and build a shopping mall. That move set off waves of anti-government protests last summer.

Secular vs. Islamist

The contest for mayor of Istanbul will also be a contest between Turkey’s secular traditions and the Islamist politics that have dominated the country over the last decade.

Zehra Hocaoglu, 33, who works at a soft-drink company and lives in the largely secular neighborhood of Besiktas, acknowledged the improvements the AKP had brought to the city but said he has become increasingly uneasy about the mixture of religion and politics during Erdogan’s time in power.

“We live in a secular country,” he said. “We want to live this way. I will vote for Sarigul.”

But for the pious here, who were oppressed under past secular governments, Erdogan’s rise to power created a heady sense of having a seat in power that they will not easily forsake.

“I used to have to take my head scarf off to attend my classes,” said Sevim Ergun, an English teacher, speaking as she rode the ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul. “But this year I was able to attend without taking it off.”

Some polls show that Sarigul is Turkey’s third most popular politician, after Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, the president. Most analysts are not yet predicting a victory for Sarigul in Istanbul, although they say the race is tightening.

“Right-wing voters are pretty much stuck between their wallets and their conscience,” said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of political science at Sabanci University in Istanbul.

But an AKP loss in Istanbul, experts say, would jeopardize Erdogan’s ambition to become president this year in the first national vote for that office, along with his oft-stated goal of presiding over Turkish politics until 2023, modern Turkey’s 100th anniversary.

“Last May, before Gezi, there was little doubt that he would comfortably win the presidency,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, head of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a research organization. “Today there is nothing clear about the future of Turkish politics.”

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