Istanbul Votes

Kaya Genç

Istanbul's mayoral election is tomorrow. I wonder if rescheduling it for two month’s time would make a difference. I have a hunch that it might: 27 May marks the first anniversary of the beginning of the Gezi Park demonstrations, and the results of the election will in part reflect the way people here feel about last year's protests.

My walk to the polling station will take me past Gezi, which is now a refuge for dozens of homeless Syrians. The continuing existence of the park is itself a triumph for the protesters. Had the proposed shopping mall been built there, the refugees would almost certainly not be allowed inside. There is a reason people want to preserve public spaces.

Gezi radically changed Turkey's image, crystallising concerns about Istanbul's future. Should public money be spent on more infrastructure and construction projects, or on the preservation of the city? Should Istanbul have a new bridge, a new airport, a new canal, parallel to the Bosphorus, that would create a ‘Manhattan-style’ island in the middle of the city? Or should the mayor stick to improving what’s already here?

Those local debates are part of a national question: Should the conservative democratic AKP, with its liberal economic agenda, continue ruling the country? Or is it time for a change of government? There will be a general election in 15 months time. Local politics in Istanbul – home to a fifth of Turkey’s population – are a bellwether for the national scene. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, five years before becoming prime minister (he spent four months in prison in the meantime).

In the polling station, I and the 9,997,023 others eligible to vote will have a choice of three main candidates. The current mayor, Kadir Topbaş of the AKP, is standing for re-election. His main rival is Mustafa Sarıgül of the Republican People’s Party. Sarıgül is the mayor of Şişli, Istanbul's most westernised quarter, where he is extremely popular among middle-class residents. His surname means ‘yellow rose’; his female supporters often wear yellow rose-shaped hats. Prominent journalists like Hasan Cemal and novelists like Perihan Mağden expressed their support for him last week.

But the outcome may be decided by Sırrı Süreyya Önder and Pınar Aydınlar, the first ever dual candidates to run for mayor of Istanbul. Önder is a parliamentarian who had made a name for himself as a screenwriter, film director and broadcaster over the last decade. He is famous for his witty speeches on telly and in parliament which often go viral on YouTube. He is also the official spokesperson of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. Aydınlar is a 35-year-old folk singer. They are the candidates of the left-wing People’s Democracy Party, and their anticipated share of 5 per cent of the vote will be crucial.

All the candidates are slightly out of tune with the rhetoric of their parties. Topbaş is a soft-spoken, practical man who ostensibly has little to do with Erdoğan’s hectoring Islamic discourse. His projects are more Western than Islamic: he is the city's leading advocate of gentrification and urban transformation. Sarıgül is uncharacteristically devout and business-friendly for his secularist, social democratic party. Furthermore, he is rumoured to be endorsed by Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania where he has a significant influence on Turkish politics. And Önder, who kickstarted the events in Gezi last year (he was the first who dared stand against the bulldozers), may end up being the politician who helps Topbaş win a second term in office. Not by dividing the vote of the left, as his adversaries claim: the more important phenomenon is that he is talking on behalf of a new understanding of the left that is staunchly anti-business and anti-establishment.

For Topbaş’s supporters, he’s done enough in office to earn a second term. The AKP’s strongest, and most controversial, policies in Istanbul have been their ambitious public transport schemes: they’ve added hundreds of miles of railway lines to the city, including a tunnel beneath the Bosphorus. But Topbaş's entrepreneurial strength is also a weakness: his critics accuse his team of doing shady deals with construction companies which Sarıgül says he will no longer do business with if he comes to power. Önder and Aydınlar say there’s little to choose between their neoliberal rivals, and that Sarıgül has the potential to do the kinds of thing he had accused Topbaş of doing, only with a different set of (more secular) business people.