Erdoğan’s weakest link is Ankara
No, I will not talk about the situation that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has put himself in with the Twitter ban thanks to his half-wit advisors.
His long time fellow President Abdullah Gül, who had already broken the ban, slammed the decision on March 23, also teasing that the number of users had doubled since the ban.
The night before, U.S. President Barack Obama had also openly slammed it, while the U.S. Embassy in Ankara posted an article on the State Department’s blog with the hashtag “#21CenturyBookBurning,” thus likening it to the infamous Nazi practice.
I also won’t talk about Erdoğan’s announcement of the shooting down of the Syrian plane in his election rally in Istanbul. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had warned Chief of General Staff Necdet Özel days ago about Erdoğan’s possible venture to push the military into a clash with Syria to score election points.
In his parallel universe, Erdoğan would point to the crowds in his Istanbul rally as evidence of his righteousness anyway.
Today let’s talk about the possibilities in Istanbul and Ankara for the critical local elections on March 30.
Why Istanbul and Ankara? Because of the population concentrations, the balance among Turkey’s three biggest cities - Istanbul, Ankara and İzmir - determine the overall political atmosphere of the country.
Currently, the score is 2-1. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) holds the mayorship of Istanbul and Ankara, while the CHP holds İzmir.
Public opinion polls this season are not very reliable, the main reason being the high percentage of still undecided voters; in some polls this number is as high as 20 percent which means the margin of error is up to plus or minus 5 percent. But one can safely estimate that the CHP is going to keep İzmir, Turkey’s port which opens to the West in all senses of the word.
That leaves us with Istanbul and Ankara. If at least one of those country-size cities (14 m, 5 m, respectively) will change hands that would definitely determine the political course of Turkey after March 30.
One of the golden rules of Turkish politics is that who takes Istanbul, takes Turkey.
It is also true that whoever loses Ankara, loses Turkey.
The first would be an instant and rather painless death, while the second would be the beginning of a painful one.
The tale of two Turkish cities has always determined the political atmosphere, since the establishment of the republic more than 90 years ago.
The rise of Islamic politics in Turkey started when Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party won both Istanbul and Ankara in the March 1994 locals. Tayyip Erdoğan was the winner in Istanbul and Melih Gökçek was the winner in Ankara.
Erdoğan won easily because Istanbulites got rid of the incompetence of the former mayor, after an extramarital affair-tainted corruption scandal. Gökçek had won by a margin of only 6,500 votes because of the fight between three center-left parties.
The CHP’s Istanbul candidate, Mustafa Sarıgül, is a hard-working populist politician who proved himself in consecutive mayoral terms in Istanbul’s well-off Şişli district. On the other hand AK Parti’s incumbent, Kadir Topbaş, is not a bad mayor when it comes to services; his rating is generally assumed to be higher than his party. Plus, he is supported by civil society groups such as lobbies from Anatolian towns (Istanbul is a magnet for domestic migration), business lobbies, and Islamic groups.
Gökçek, on the other hand, despite currently enjoying a fourth term in Ankara, relies on rather less-educated masses, thankful for the not-very-long-term jobs and benefits from the municipality, and what’s more he is not very well-organized.
Gökçek has also been supported by a not-so-much-in-number but a very well-organized group: The Cemaat. Followers of Erdoğan’s once-close ally Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident moderate Islamist scholar, have been supporting Gökçek in their good old days with Erdoğan. Now it is a delicate matter, and perhaps this is why Gökçek is the only exemption in the entire AK Parti in not slamming Gülen in public.
However, the CHP candidate in Ankara is a considerable rival to Gökçek. Kılıçdaroğlu took a great risk when he picked Mansur Yavaş, who had been the candidate for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the previous local elections. Like Sarıgül in Istanbul, he proved himself as a successful district mayor, in the Beypazarı township of Ankara and is known as a conservative but secular, moderate politician. It now seems that he has started to close the gap. (In the 2009 locals the AK Parti got 38.5 percent, the CHP got 31.5 percent, and the MHP got 26.8 percent of the vote.) Now, many names from the MHP, former center-right parties, and even the AK Parti, are now supporting Yavaş’s campaign for the CHP.
If he closes that gap and takes Ankara, or in other words, if Gökçek loses Ankara, that could be the start of the fall of Erdoğan in ballot box terms as well.
The AK Parti losing Istanbul would be a surprise. There’s a higher possibility in Ankara, and it could mark a turning point for the Erdoğan era.