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Turkey's Local Polls Shape Up As Erdogan Referendum

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters during an election rally in Istanbul on March 23.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters during an election rally in Istanbul on March 23.
ISTANBUL -- Officially, when Mustafa Sarigul appears on the ballot as the main opposition candidate for Istanbul mayor, he will be battling incumbent Kadir Topbas for votes.

But when Sarigul talks about his competition he generally utters one name: Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It comes up over and over again as Sarigul speaks to RFE/RL one March evening in his armored car, heading home following back-to-back meetings with local community leaders.

The Turkish prime minister knows losing the city in the March 30 elections could be devastating, Sarigul says: "If Istanbul decides, that means all of Turkey decides."

"He is afraid because in leadership surveys I am ranked second after him and he knows that if we get Istanbul, he and his whole campaign will be in danger."

Sarigul, the 57-year-old head of Istanbul's upper-middle-class Sisli district, is like almost everyone else here in his Erdogan obsession. And many see the nationwide municipal elections as a referendum on his rule.

Since February, when a YouTube user posted audio recordings purporting to show the prime minister asking his son to hide up to $1 billion in cash, Erdogan has dominated Turkey's conversation.

And as the scandal has grown wider -- with new recordings a recurring event -- Erdogan, who has admitted to some of the content in the recordings but called others manipulated "montages," has fought back with a vengeance. He has fired thousands of police officers and placed an outright ban on Twitter. A court suspended the ban on March 26, but the following day Turkey's telecom authority upped the ante by ordering YouTube blocked.

Referendum On Erdogan

The elections will be the first in a 15-month cycle that will see a presidential election this summer and a parliamentary race in 2015. Municipal elections typically draw lower turnout than national races, but the divisions around Erdogan have made this contest different.

"They are probably one of the most consequential elections we've had since 1950," says Soli Ozel, a professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.

Istanbul is the biggest prize and it carries particular significance for Erdogan, who launched his political career as mayor of the city in the 1990s.

Sarigul appears to be within striking distance of Topbas, who still maintains a small lead in recent opinion polling.

But Turkey has seen widespread economic growth in Erdogan's 11-year tenure and the prime minister remains the country's most popular politician.

In the working-class neighborhood of Kasimpasa, where Erdogan himself grew up, Naji Kochan, a 75-year-old pensioner who sells wares in a local square for extra cash, says his standard of living has vastly improved since Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) took over. He is unswayed by recent revelations.

"The corruption and bribery operation was to debunk AKP," he says. "I don't think people here in Kasimpasa will believe this lie. People will vote for truth."
Naji Kochan, a 75-year-old pensioner and supporter of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sells hardware in the Kasimpasa region of istanbul.
Naji Kochan, a 75-year-old pensioner and supporter of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sells hardware in the Kasimpasa region of istanbul.
At an Istanbul rally a week before the election that drew hundreds of thousands of attendees, Erdogan hammered home that theme, using his decision to block Twitter as evidence of his efforts to battle against misinformation.

"We said we would close down Twitter. Some media outlets attacked us, saying this is against freedoms. Whoever will argue against it I won't listen," he said to his roaring supporters. "Even if the whole world stands against us, we have to take precautions against all kinds of threats against the national security and safety of the country."

Erdogan's Twitter shutdown caused bemusement among Turkish Internet users, many of whom immediately found alternative means to access the site.
But the action may have less to do with censorship than with Erdogan's divide-and-conquer political strategy.

He may be "play-acting and he's trying to convince his own loyal constituency that he's fighting tooth and nail a big conspiracy of which the use of Twitter is a part," Ozel says.

Conspiracies Everywhere

The opposition has distilled its adversary into one man, but to Erdogan, his rivals represent an ever-growing list of "lobbies" that he says have come together to form a so-called parallel state, led by international conspirators bent on his destruction.

According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, Turkey is torn between two competing political narratives. "The first narrative is that -- and this is the opposition narrative and comes now from the right and from the left -- it's that Erdogan is an authoritarian ruler and even a 'dictator,'" he says. "And the second narrative is the opposite of that. It's that there's a vast internationally driven conspiracy to take out Turkey's democratically elected prime minister."

Erdogan's talk of conspiracies accelerated in June 2013, during nightly protests against a development in the centrally located Gezi Park that regularly drew tens of thousands of people. He said they were the result of outside forces backed by an "interest-rate lobby."

Using a nightly barrage of water cannons and tear gas, police eventually cleared the park and Erdogan seemed to have mostly come back into form until December, when Turkish police arrested over a dozen people and three sons of ministers in a bribery crackdown alleged to involve tens of millions of dollars.

The investigation is widely believed to be a result of a growing rift between Erdogan and followers of Fetullah Gullen, an influential cleric who has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.

Erdogan had earlier expected to use his majority to increase the power of the president and then run for that office, but the continuing scandal has made this scenario appear less likely. President Abdullah Gul, also of AKP, has criticized Erdogan's Twitter ban and denied the existence of an international conspiracy, in what may be a fledgling attempt to distance himself from the prime minister.

Party rules currently preclude Erdogan from running for a fourth consecutive term in the premiership, but he recently suggested those rules can easily be changed.

There is little doubt that AKP will win the plurality of municipal seats on March 30, but the strength of the victory will prove pivotal for Erdogan. Cagaptay says winning less than 40 percent of the nationwide total while also losing either Istanbul or Ankara, which polls show is also closely contested, would be a major blow. But if he can manage 45 percent support and keep the major cities, his position will be strengthened.

Sarigul does not draw massive crowds like those that turn up at Erdogan's events. He is hampered by a seeming lack of enthusiasm for his Republican People's Party (CHP) and accusations of corruption levelled by Erdogan himself. But polls have put the divorced father of two as the country's third-most-popular politician, after Erdogan and Gul.

Speaking to about 500 people from atop his campaign bus this March, Sarigul's perfectly coifed, combed-back hair and finely cut suit seemed as indifferent to the steady rain as the candidate himself. In his 15-minute talk he focused on his favorite themes: corruption, Erdogan, and AKP.

WATCH: Sarigul campaigns in Istanbul on March 8.
Sarigul claims internal polling puts him two points ahead and he tells RFE/RL resentment of Erdogan will be enough to carry him to victory.

"There is corruption and bribery in Turkey and people will see that this is where their taxes are going and whose pockets they are going into. And the people who still are thinking of voting for AKP will change their minds."
Rena Allahverdiyeva contributed to this report
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer.