All Politics is Local: Istanbul, 2009


“Once more we are giving life to the Istanbul of poetry; of fairy tales; of songs; of our Turkish ballads. We are giving life to the Istanbul of our literature and our history,” explained Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan, speaking at the opening of the 1453 Panorama Museum devoted to Mehmet the Conqueror’s capture of Istanbul. It was two months until the 2009 mayoral elections.[1]

Reflections on Turkey tend to give short shrift to Istanbul’s local politics.[2] Considering the issues facing the country as a whole—a civil war in neighboring Syria, its own undeclared civil war in the southeast, military-civilian disputes, constitutional squabbles, gender inequality, and presidential politicking—urban politics can seem picayune. Yet to play down Istanbul’s local politics risks missing dynamics that can help us more fully appreciate those grander issues.

With an estimated 13 million residents, Istanbul is home to nearly twenty percent of the country’s population—by contrast only six percent lives in Ankara, the second largest city.[3] Istanbul accounts for thirty percent of the country’s entire GDP, and in sectors like financial services half.[4] In the 2011 election, one in every five votes cast for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was cast in Istanbul.

Whomever controls the city is but a step from controlling the country.



1. Erdoğan’s Istanbul

2. The Rise of Kadir Topbaş

3. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu: A New Face For the Opposition

4. The 2009 Istanbul Mayoral Campaign

5. Conclusion


This rejuvenation Erdoğan spoke of contrasted with a past marked by “piles of trash, air pollution, and water shortages”; a time when “visitors to the city opened the facet and—what color water would pour out? Green? Brown? Everyone wondered about this . . .Now, on account of infrastructure, pavement, transportation—all these resources—there is again an Istanbul which measures up to history, to civilization, to other world cities.”

“Pay attention,” the prime minister said, beginning to shift his point:

I’m using the term ‘again.’ Because Istanbul was already great. Because Istanbul was already holy. Istanbul was already awe-inspiring. In times before ours, Istanbul was a vision to the world. This holy Istanbul, they turned it into just a place. You know those who held power before us. Therefore, you know their mentality. Istanbul, this city of dreams, in their hands, in a moment, became a city of nightmares . . .From under piles of trash, from under oceans of mud, from inside potholes corruption emerged. We came and made an end of corruption. And now, those who once surrounded us with mud, are in the public squares trying to throw mud at our administration and our city. [5]

Erdoğan went on, drawing attention to the change his AKP had wrought in recent decades. The neighborhood around the museum had been “a cesspool” populated by kids huffing paint-thinner, scam-artists, and gangs. It had been a place where women and children were afraid to walk at night. Now, however, there were parks and government services—exactly the sort of changes his audience should recall in two months time when they cast their ballots.

Erdoğan spoke from experience. He had grown up in Kasımpaşa, one of the scruffier neighborhoods on Istanbul’s European side, and came to prominence as the city’s first Islamist mayor. Even now he continues to represent it as a parliamentarian. His effective management of the city is intimately bound up with the AKP’s identity. The party grew out of a religious political movement that gained strength at the local level before coming to dominate the national politics. The Istanbul that AKP politicians inherited in 1994 was, just as Erdoğan suggested, a mess. Decades of migration from rural areas had created vast slums, which seemed to spout up over night. Religious activists worked at the grass-roots level to provide services and turn out the vote.

In office pious politicians focused their practical struggles on providing services to the needy while simultaneously engaging in multiple symbolic struggles. Erdoğan spoke of building a mosque in the city center, beside a statue of Ataturk; there were crack-downs on bars with unlicensed outside tables; and alcohol-free cafes, done up in faux-Ottoman style, were built on government administered parks.

Though Erdoğan and his allies spoke a great deal of stamping out corruption, their opponents were skeptical. Nationally the Islamist movement was supported by a new generation of Anatolian businessmen, but in Istanbul there were plenty of established business as well. These included Ülker, a major dairy and biscuit manufacturer, and the Albayrak media empire. Newspapers tied to opposition parties were quick to investigate whenever Erdoğan’s administration awarded contracts to such allies.

In 1997, the armed forces, concerned by the growing political and social power of the Islamic movement initiated a major crackdown. The Prime Minister was forced to step down, new regulations were placed on religious education programs, and the accounts of several major Islamist corporations were frozen. When Erdoğan gave a particularly confrontational speech while touring his wife’s hometown, he was charged with inciting religious hatred, sentenced to several years in prison, and removed from office.

replacement, Ali Müfit Gürtuna, served out Erdoğan’s mayoral term and, a year later, was reelected as a candidate for the Virtue Party (FP)—the predecessor to the AKP and the party to which pious politicians had moved when its own predecessor, the Welfare Party, had been shuttered by the courts.

Like Erdoğan, Gürtuna had risen up through municipal politics. Unlike Erdoğan, however, he had entered politics as a member of the Motherland Party (ANAP), which was not a particularly pious party.[6] Not unique for a politician—Turkish or otherwise—Gürtuna was an opportunist. In 1999 he sought the nomination of the FP, but when the party split between reformers led by Erdoğan and those loyal to the old guard, Gürtuna attempted to stay neutral. This decision would cost him.



The Greater Municipality of Istanbul contains thirty-nine districts. Some of the larger ones, like Bağcılar in the west and Ümraniye in the east, are larger than American cities like Seattle or Baltimore. At election time, Istanbullus vote for a local council, a district mayor, and a municipal mayor.[7] The upshot is that a party may be uncompetitive overall, still able to win a region where its candidate is particularly strong.[8]

Such a system is well suited for a sprawling, diverse city like Istanbul, but it can lead to problems. It raises the possibility of municipal mayors funneling money to districts controlled by their allies and bypassing their rivals. Furthermore, policies pushed by the municipality can run afoul of the districts and, as each has its own police force, this can cause trouble. In December 2008, for example, the municipal police appeared in Avcılar district seeking to enforce a ban on unlicensed flower vendors. Fights broke out when members of the district’s police force arrived on the scene.[9]

Each party selects its candidates several months before the elections. As party’s are highly centralized in Turkey, the selection system places candidates for mayor in largely subservient positions—at best they are expected to work closely with the party’s provincial president, at worst they are meant to take orders. At least in theory the AKP is more internally democratic than other parties in that it conducts surveys of its members to gauge their candidate preferences. But ultimately the decision lies with the party leadership.

Running independently of a party is difficult since campaign funds are largely tied to parties.[10] Every year the state takes 0.0004% of its revenues and splits them among parties that are eligible—these are the parties that received more than 7% in the previous election.[11] The better a party does in the election, the larger its subsequent share of state funds becomes. Candidates like those from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), who campaign as independents, receive nothing; instead they must look to private individuals for funds.[12]

Here is where Gürtuna ran into trouble. He hoped that his name recognition would convince the AKP—or, he even hinted, their opposition—to nominate him. The internal party surveys, however, suggested other candidates. These included allies of Erdoğan (İdris Güllüce) as well as more “maverick” candidates (like Veysel Eroğlu).[13] Ultimately, the nomination, institutional support, financial resources, and near-guarantee of victory went to Kadir Topbaş.

Topbaş had been involved with the Islamist movement for decades. In 2004 he was fifty-nine years old and serving his fifth year as mayor Beyoğlu District.[14] Though he had been born in the small northeast city of Artvin, he was soon brought to Istanbul where his father was already established as the proprietor of a popular pudding shop in Kasımpaşa—the same neighborhood as Erdoğan was from. Over the years, the Topbaş family’s pudding business expanded. By the 1980s it was becoming a common sight in mall food courts. The brand was even expanding into new realms like pizza.[15]

While his younger brothers continued the business, Topbaş himself focused his attentions elsewhere.[16] He earned a dual degree in architecture and theology at the State School of Fine Arts and opened his own firm. During the late-1970s he ran the firm while pursuing a doctorate in Art History at Istanbul University and developing an interest in Islamist politics.[17] Over the years he formed a close relationship with Erdoğan and served as an advisor following the 1994 elections in which Erdoğan became mayor. He even designed Erdoğan’s Rize vacation home.[18]

By 1996 he was no longer living in Kasımpaşa, but rather the upscale western neighborhood of Florya, located in the Bakırköy district. When a mayoral position opened up in Bakırköy, Topbaş was nominated to run in the by-election. He campaigned on a platform of improving transportation, adding “nostalgic parks” and green spaces, and opening up the waterfront to the public—all themes he was to repeat in following campaigns. The district, however, was not favorable to pious politicians; even in the 1994 election that had made Erdoğan mayor, the center-right Motherland Party (ANAP) had remained in control.[19] Topbaş was no more successful, but his friendship with Erdoğan and long-standing party involvement stood him well: When the president of Istanbul’s Cultural Preservation Board came out in opposition to Erdoğan’s plan for a new Taksim mosque he was sacked and replaced with Topbaş.[20] Critics in both into press and on the board itself argued that Topbaş’s appointment was politicizing the board and (oddly) that Topbaş had no qualifications for the position.

The mosque controversy aside, much of his next several years were spent renovating important landmarks like Dolmabahçe Palace. Unlike many of his fellow pious politicians, Topbaş managed to avoid being caught up in the “February 28 Process” during which the army sought to beat back the Islamist advance. He was, however, impacted by its results, chief among which was the fragmenting of the Islamist movement. Since its earliest days, the movement had been led by Necmettin Erbakan and his allies. Erdoğan, who is a decade younger than Topbaş, represented a new generation. By undermining Erbakan—closing his party and banning him from politics for five years—the military gave Erdoğan and his “reformists” an opportunity to assert themselves.

Islamic politicians rallied under a new banner as the Virtue Party (FP). At the first Istanbul party congress Erdoğan attempted to assert his control of the branch by floating Topbaş’s name as a possible candidate for provincial party leader. Erbakan withheld support and endorsed his own candidate, Numan Kurtulmuş, instead.[21] A year later, Topbaş was again rewarded for his loyalty by being nominated as a candidate for Beyoğlu district mayor. Although he didn’t even live in the district any more, it remained Erdoğan’s political base. Topbaş won the race by twelve points.[22] When Erdoğan again backed him for higher office—this time the municipal mayoralty in 2004—he won by seventeen.[23]

In both his 1999 and 2004 campaigns, Topbaş was little more than a stand in for his party and its leader. The opposition was disorganized.[24] And, in both those years, his party and his leader were very popular.

The 2009 election would be different.




The AKP’s dominance in Istanbul can be a bit deceptive. Erdoğan had won the mayoralty with only 25% of the vote. Two other parties, neither particularly Islamist, had also garnered more than 20%.[25] For all one reads about the Islamist movement’s organizational skill and competent municipal management, the 1999 results were essentially a repeat—Gürtuna’s vote rose one percent. The numbers only began to change with the 2004 election. During the past five years, there had been a sea change in Turkish politics. A major financial crash had discredited the traditional ruling elite, which seemed perpetually enmeshed in power struggles and squabbles.[26]

Erdoğan launched his AKP at this uncertain moment, offering the party up as an alternative to the corruption and pettiness of the past.[27] The party routed all other opposition parties in the 2002 national elections. Where once five parties had held seats in parliament, now only two remained—the AKP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), a party so minor previously that it had not even been represented in parliament.[28] Numerous parties simply ceased to exist; only those like the National Action Party, held together by ideology managed to recover.

Consequently the 2004 election was less a contest between established parties than one between a single organized party and another still trying to find its feet and adjust to new political realities. Topbaş won 45% of the vote to his opponent’s 28%. The fact that, combined, these two parties won 75% of the total vote indicated that a two party system was beginning to emerge in Istanbul’s politics. The 2009 election, thus, is particularly significant because it was the first time that two—and only two—relatively well-matched parties competed for the mayoralty.[29]

To compete against Topbaş, the CHP selected Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. For a number of reasons Kılıçdaroğlu was a particularly good choice. Most importantly, he was not some non-entity: he was the deputy leader of the CHP, a sitting member of parliament representing Istanbul, and the former head of the Social Security Authority (SSK). His time overseeing one of the country’s largest social welfare institutions helped burnish his image as a true social democrat in party whose ideology remained fairly vague or confused.

In the past year Kılıçdaroğlu had been especially prominent on the national stage. Between 2007 and 2008, the AKP had been hit with multiple corruption charges—many of which stuck—and Kılıçdaroğlu had been the point man in parliament for introducing documents and making flamboyant accusations. The most serious of these cases (albeit the one in which Kılıçdaroğlu played the smallest role) was an investigation of the Lighthouse Foundation, which revealed that money raised from religious Turks in Germany was being turned over to Turkey’s Islamist-owned Channel 7. Some of this money was then being funneled to shell companies owned by the head of Turkey’s Television High Commission.[30] An even larger portion of the money had simply disappeared leading to speculation that the charity was funneling money to members of the AKP.

Kılıçdaroğlu was more closely involved in the resignation of Şaban Dişli. A representative from Sakarya, Dişli was one of the AKP’s founding members. As an American educated economist with an advanced degree in management from Harvard and experience in international banking, he had served as a reassuring link between the AKP government and internal financial institutions during the party’s early days in power, when there was still a great deal of skepticism as to the party’s financial competence. Over the years he’d held multiple party positions and been on the short list for posts like Foreign minister.[31]

In August of 2008 Kılıçdaroğlu accused Dişli of accepting bribes from Akademi Ofset, a printing company hoping to develop a piece of property in Dişli’s district. He produced documents showing that Dişli had received a bank transfer of $1 million from the company.[32] Though Dişli denied any wrongdoing and claimed the transfer was in relation to previous business he had done with the company in the early 2000s, he could provide no evidence of his claim. He was also unable to refute further claims by Kılıçdaroğlu that he had given favorable zoning privileges to Sırma Soda, a company owned by a relative (and previously by Dişli himself). Within weeks Dişli was forced to step down from his leadership positions.

Kılıçdaroğlu attempted to take a second AKP scalp a month later—though this incident suggested there were limits to his strategy of waiving documents around. In September he declared that Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, the AKP’s deputy chairman, was falsifying import documents to benefit his own businesses and using his apricot company as a front for smuggling heroin. Firat denied these accusations and the two men spent several days hurling insults back and forth before finally agreeing to a debate on live television.

At the debate, Kılıçdaroğlu presented various court documents relating to Firat’s businesses.[33] These were inconclusive. As for the heroin smuggling, the most Kılıçdaroğlu could prove was that one of the company’s many drivers had been arrested for carrying a shipment. Firat was in no way linked to this crime, but it had come at a time when his company was lobbying the government for special “no-inspection” passes.[34]  When Firat stepped down from his position as a party leader two moths later, some newspapers attributed it to Kılıçdaroğlu’s efforts, but many noted that Firat, the leader of a large Kurdish clan, had been advocating for a softer government approach to Turkey’s southeastern regions at a time when Erdoğan was favoring a harder line.[35]

In any event, all these accomplishments over the past year had significantly raised Kılıçdaroğlu’s profile, making him a serious candidate for party leadership should CHP leader Deniz Baykal slip up.[36] Given the seeming impossibility of winning the Istanbul race, however, some commentators wondered whether Kılıçdaroğlu had been handed a poisoned chalice. A loss might well undermine his future political prospects and remind Baykal’s internal opponents that they had no real alternative to himself.

Both Kılıçdaroğlu and Topbaş were fighting for their political futures.




During the two-month campaign (roughly February and March), both Topbaş and Kılıçdaroğlu hewed closely to their tried and true campaign strategies. Topbaş emphasized the past accomplishments of the AKP and contrasted them with the incompetence of the political class that had preceded it. “We have done thousands of projects,” he would explain:

Even Istanbullus only know a fraction. Did you know, for example, that the [Black Sea coast town of] Ağva is now using natural gas? Or that we’ve decorated its seaside to look like Miami? In this city, everyone has experienced one of these points. The beaches are open; we have freed up the waterfront; made the city more livable; we have taken away ‘car attendants’—the autopark mafia[37] remains, but has been reduced; we’ve made new roads . . .everyone is hopeful about the future. I get serious support from those who are happy with the services they receive from the city, Alevis, non-Muslims . . .we have answered the hopes of those living in the so-called slums and those living in the city centers.[38]

Aside from recalling the accomplishments of the past five years, Topbaş rolled out a series of major new projects over the course of the two-month campaign. In late January he and Erdoğan attended the opening of a new subway station, linking the busy Taksim square with the southern end of the popular İstaklal Street.[39] A month later they met again to open the new metrobus line linking Zincirlikuyu on the European side with Söğütlüçeşme on the Asian side. The route completed what had been a major achievement for the city over the past several years—the creation of a bus line separated from traffic, whisking passengers over a distance of 19 kilometers (12 miles), passing through some of the city’s most populous neighborhoods.

Forced to compete with such accomplishments, Kılıçdaroğlu tried a number of gambits. The first was to draw attention to failures in city management. This was pursued through some of the campaign’s more theatrical flourishes: In response to Topbaş and Erdoğan’s repeated mentions of cleaning up the city’s mud, Kılıçdaroğlu, accompanied by the CHP’s provincial party chair, Gürsel Tekin, went tromping around city slums in search of mud. Erdoğan dismissed such activities, offering to send the men a guidebook. Kılıçdaroğlu retorted that, “If the prime minister wants, I can send him my mud covered shoes.”[40] He went on to add:

My opponents are both Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Topbaş . . .They may live in untouchable gardens and villas, I can’t. I should be among the people. For my shoes to be ruined by Istanbul’s mud and potholes isn’t populist politics . . .My dear Prime Minister, I don’t know how well you know Istanbul, but I know it well. I’ve raised three children here. While the Prime Minster was absent from [the slums], I was there.[41]

On these trips to the slums, Kılıçdaroğlu contrasted himself with AKP politicians who, he claimed, provided these areas with freebies like coal, but failed to create any real structures to alleviate the deeply-rooted causes of poverty. The AKP, he argued, was creating a “handout culture” whereas he sought to establish a “culture of security.” His solution was to give women from poor households direct cash transfers of 600 TL. (Some interviewers can be forgiven for failing to see the difference between this scheme and the AKP’s free coal.[42])

His second tactic was to promise more. He maintained that, if elected, he would reduce public transport fees to 1TL. Furthermore he promised that, “ I will build 80 kilometer of metro-line within five years. Istanbul’s riches have been squandered. In 48 hours, 11 trillion lira is provided to businessmen. This rent never enters the slums or goes to the poor. It is shared out among the AKP and their allies.”

Topbaş scoffed at such grandiose promises as impractical, but the accusations of corruption were serious and constituted another line of attack. Throughout the campaign Kılıçdaroğlu sought to do for Topbaş what he had done for Dişli and Firat. He repeatedly asserted that the AKP was buying the votes of the poor on the cheap while dishing out the real goods to its allies:

Look: from when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became mayor until now, fifteen years have passed. $150 billon has been spent on Istanbul. Now Istanbullus should turn and ask themselves, ‘What did this $150 billion do? Which of my problems has it solved?” If they don’t know, then they should ask the government for an accounting. What did this government do with that money? Do you think it was all spent on the city? Well its all been spent and some people are laughing all the way to the bank, they’ve become wealthy.[43]

Gürsel Tekin put it more succinctly: “The Prime Minister started as a mücahit (mujahedeen), now everyone’s a müteahhit (contractor). We’re going to ask them for the bill.”[44]

The CHP focused their attention on the twenty-three companies owned by the city. These included companies handling the city’s tourist services (Beltur), producing its construction materials (İSTON), and distributing its potable water (Hamidye). Kılıçdaroğlu questioned why the government had not published detailed financial information, suggested that money was being misspent and demanded that Topbaş come clean.[45] From the beginning of the campaign, Kılıçdaroğlu implied that he had files that would prove highly incriminating. He continued to hint at their contents for over a month leading Topbaş observe, “As an inspector yourself you well know that if you have files in your possession [which reveal a crime], to hide them is a crime.”[46]


Kılıçdaroğlu responded by giving Topbaş two days to reveal the accounts of these companies. When nothing of the sort came to pass, he announced (somewhat anticlimactically) that, while only three of the companies were running at an annual loss, the long-term debt load of the companies was extremely high—$2.4 billion he claimed; a debt load ten times greater than the annual profits of the companies. Topbaş dismissed these numbers as “demagoguery.” He did not, however, provide any statistics to disprove Kılıçdaroğlu; her merely reiterated that the annual debt load was only a million while acknowledging that an unspecified long-term debt also existed.[47]

Undeterred, Kılıçdaroğlu pressed forward with a new set of charges. With a week to go before the election, he pointed out that İSFALT, the municipal corporation in charge of paving the city’s roads, had paid a consulting fee of €3.8 million to Eurasfalt, a German company run by Serdar Kepenek, a German-Turk with connections to MÜSİAD, the association of Turkey’s Islamic businessmen. In the following days, it emerged that Kepenek had served as a manager on the Berlin Ankaraspor football team, whose president was the son of Ankara’s AKP mayor. Moreover, in the early 2000s, Kepenek had run a company in partnership with Abdülkadir Bahattin Özal, whose father, Korkut, was among the founders of the Islamic political movement.[48]

Kılıçdaroğlu lacked any smoking gun to prove wrongdoing, but the circumstantial case was disturbing. Topbaş’s refusal to give a good explanation allowed Kılıçdaroğlu to speculate whether the firm was merely a “slush fund” for the AKP.[49] A few days later, he made a second set of charges, this time relating to a travel company, Eve Turizm, which had received a payout of 4 million TL for unspecified services. Again in place of definitive evidence Kılıçdaroğlu merely pointed out that the agency’s owner, Alim Sudaş, was a member of ASKON, an association of Anatolian businessmen close to the AKP, and had traveled on a junket to Saudi Arabia with Erdoğan in 2004.[50]

While Kılıçdaroğlu’s attacks avoided Topbaş’s personal dealings, his surrogates were more direct. Çetin Soysal, a mid-level Istanbul representative, accused Topbaş of skirting municipal zoning regulations to favor his son.[51] According to Soysal, the son had been allowed to develop a parcel of land in the Rumeli Hisarı neighborhood, expanding it from 45 to 1500 square meters. This project had started two months before the necessary documents had been submitted and approved by the city. Soysal attempted to tie these charges to a more wide-ranging critique, observing that, “When Topbaş became mayor, there were four pudding shops, now how many are there?”[52]

Such accusations got little traction—neither did attacks from peripheral mayoral candidates, like the Felicity Party’s Mehmet Bekaroğlu, who accused Topbaş of using municipal resources for re-election purposes. In particular he pointed to a book the city had published called In Five Years We Have Signed-off On a Record (Number of Projects).[53] “Millions [of copies] of this book were published,” he complained, “For just this book’s publication and distribution it cost 2.5 million TL. Our [party’s] entire election budget isn’t that much.”[54] Hoping for this “injustice to be righted” he submitted a formal complain to the High Electoral Commission.

For his part, Topbaş largely remained above the fray. His attacks were less focused on Kılıçdaroğlu than on the past that he and the CHP represented. When he directly criticized Kılıçdaroğlu it was in response to his opponent’s promises or accusations. In these instances, Topbaş characterized Kılıçdaroğlu as petty, exaggerating, or simply out of his depth. In particular he mocked Kılıçdaroğlu’s constant claims to possess files: “Since the day he came, he’s been saying ‘files, files,’ but there’s not a bit of evidence. ‘The [municipal] corporations are bankrupt; $2 million in debt,’ he says . . .They brought up İSFALT and we gave an explanation, we will continue to give explanations . . .”[55] “They came with files, and they will leave with files.”[56]

Dismissing Kılıçdaroğlu and his files as a bit silly was a common line of attack. So were charges of corruption and mismanagement. Sometimes the two were combined. Three weeks before the election, a number of posters appeared around the city advertising the book The File on File-Keeper Kemal. The posters asked, “How many jobs did he give to members of illegal organizations?” “Why did the [military] refer to him as a ‘separatist?’” “Which tenders did he award to his close associates?”[57]

These charges were similar to ones made weeks earlier in the AKP-friendly press.[58] The posters were strategically placed beside CHP posters touting Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy. How the small publishing house had managed to reserve precisely such spaces on the municipally owned billboards was unclear. The CHP accused the municipality of orchestrating the smear campaign, but was unable to prove anything. Topbaş expressed his concern about such propaganda being put up, and promised to have the posters taken down.

A few posters, of course, made little difference in the electoral campaign. They were representative, however, of the general line of attack that secured Topbaş’s victory. Kılıçdaroğlu was unable to convince enough people that the AKP’s faults outweighed their considerable accomplishments. Topbaş, by contrast, continually reminded voters of his achievements and his opponents’ failures. He won the election by eight points.

If not a resounding victory for the CHP, the election was far from being an outright defeat. Kılıçdaroğlu had rallied the city’s anti-AKP vote and raised his party’s total by eight points, he had reduced the AKP’s vote by one percent—the only time thus far that the Islamist vote total has decreased in an Istanbul municipal election (or a national election) before or since. Moreover, the CHP won twelve districts, six of which had previously been under AKP control. The AKP was unable to win any districts held by the CHP.[59] Largely on account of these successes, Kılıçdaroğlu is now the CHP’s national leader.



Four years have passed since the election and life in Istanbul is once more adapting to election year inconveniences. Istanbul’s central Taksim Square is undergoing the most ambitious construction project in decades.[60] Ultimately the square will be expanded, the adjacent park will be refurbished, and the entire area—which has long been a central hub for taxis and buses—will be permanently closed to traffic. Once the project is complete, transport will be accessible belowground via a vast tunnel that will entirely bypass the square. Until then, the result is sheer chaos.

Tarlabaşı Boulevard, the six-lane road leading to the square, which clogs under the best of conditions, has been reduced to a single northbound lane and two southbound lanes for 400 meters. Dolmuşes (yellow collective taxis typically stationed along the northbound lanes) have been forced awkwardly onto the opposite side of the street, slowing traffic leaving Taksim. Dozens of business along the path of construction are now inaccessible and facing the prospect of permanent closure.[61] The entire project was rushed through the cities various planning committees at breakneck speed, leaving many angry. Small groups of protesters have been meeting each evening to criticize the project.[62]

Yet this is but one project among many. Pedestrians making their way south down Tarlabaşı Boulevard will be hemmed in on one side by the tunnel construction and on the other by the Tarlabaşı Urban Renewal Project, an equally ambitious project that entails ripping down hundreds of buildings in the city’s most notorious slum and replacing them with fancy new apartments and upscale stores.[63] Meanwhile, a few kilometers north, Mecidiyeköy, the one of the city’s busiest transport hubs, is also undergoing a series of renovations and experiencing the attendant chaos. During peak hours, crowds denied streets and overpasses surge down the road, moving between buses and cars.

Fortunately, most of these projects will be finished within eight months: Just in time for the municipal elections.







[1]Çöp, çukur, çamur tarihte kaldı,” Hurriyet, 1/31/09. Acessed 11/18/12.

[2] Though many authors focusing on the development of Turkey’s Islamic movement do consider the tactics pursued and policies implemented by pious municipal politicians. (Some of the best include: Alev İnan Çinar, “Refah Party and the City Administration of Istanbul,” New Perspectives on Turkey. No. 17, Spring 1997, Pp. 23-40; Yael Navaro-Yashin, Faces of the State: Secularism and Public Life in Turkey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002; and Jenny White, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002.) What I think can be added is an emphasis on the personalities and ambitions that motivate a lot of these tactics and policies. Even the most pious politician is, at the day’s end, a politician. This reality has some explanatory value too.

[3] Press Release. Republic of Turkey Statistical Institute, 1/27/12. Accessed: 11/19/12.

[4]OECD Territorial Review: Istanbul, Turkey,” OECD, 2008, p. 41-2. Accessed 11/20/12.

[5]Çöp, çukur, çamur tarihte kaldı,” Hurriyet, 1/31/09. Acessed 11/18/12.

[6] ANAP was the party of Turgut Özal. Though Özal himself is typically described as a liberal—or neoliberal—and remembered for opening up Turkey’s economy during the 1980s, his party is more difficult to characterize. Özal himself was rather religious—he’d been nominated the as a candidate for the religious National Salvation Party (MSP) in 1977—and as prime minister did a number of symbolically religious acts, like going on the haj. His party, though, was formed in opposition to the 1980 military coup. Özal had worked with the coup leaders for several years before having a falling out. His candidacy and the party formed to support it, thus, became a rallying point against the generals and, consequently, a grab bag of ideologies. Also his brother had been prominent in Islamist politics for years and this—plus the fact that traditional leaders of the Islamist movement had been banned from politics for several yeas—gave ANAP a number of religious members. Once past political figures were allowed back into politics, voters tended to leave ANAP making its raison d’etre more difficult to discern. Unsurprisingly, the party no longer exists.

[8] The Democratic Left Party, for example, hardly exists outside of Şişli.

[9]CHP”li ve AKP”li zabıtalar tekme tokat kavga etti,” Radikal, 12/1/08. Accessed 11/17/12.

[10] It is surprising that Turkey has had so few cases of the super-rich running for office. The most prominent in recent years, Cem Uzan, was largely to suspected to have sought office in order to gain parliamentary immunity, rather than enact any particular policies. And he wasn’t very successful anyway.

[11]Third Evaluation Round Evaluation Report on Turkey on Transparency of Party Funding,” Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), 3/26/10. Accessed 11/20/12.

[12] This handicap has its upside: while contributions to parties are capped, contributions directly to candidates do not have to be reported. (Aengus Collins, “Turkey’s opaque system of political financing,” Istanbul Notes. Accessed 11/20/12.

[13] Veysel Eroğlu was, at that time, in charge of the State Hydraullic Works (DIS). This followed nearly a decade as head of Istanbul’s Water and Sewage Administration (İSKİ). Here, claims Wikipedia, he was responsible for cleaning up the polluted waters of the Gold Horn. Erdoğan also emphasizes this clean up project as a major achievement. However, it’s not true. The project was begun during the administration of Bedrettin Dalan (1984-89), who was never a member of the AKP or its predecessors. Also worth noting, Veysel Eroğlu has the most detailed English Wikipedia entry of any minor Turkish official I have come across. Also the most laudatory: it claims he “he solved the long-standing problem of Istanbul’s drinking water completely,” made a “made a major contribution to the problem of wastewater disposal,” and completed his year of post-graduate study in the Netherlands “with the highest grade.” It also says he speaks English . . .which leaves one to wonder about the authorship of the page.

[14] See a map of Beyoğlu HERE.

[15] For a more detailed history of Saray Muhallebici, see the website HERE. It’s important to note here that there are two Topbaş families. One is the mayor’s family, the other owns a number of industrial equipment companies and  such prominent businesses as BİM supermarkets. This similarity of names leads to a lot of confusion—even in the Turkish media—and periodically requires the mayor’s office to announce that he is not part of owner of an online-baby food purchasing website.

[16] Azer Bortaçina, “Muhallebicilikten kultur kuruluna  . . .” Milliyet, 2/10/97, p. 12.

[17] According to Milliyet archives Topbaş was nominated as a National Salvation Party (MSP) candidate for the Artvin province in 1977 (5/8/77, p.6) and by 1978 he was serving on the party governing board (9/3/78, p. 9). By the time the Welfare party was closed, he had reached the rank of Istanbul Party Vice-President (“Beyoğlu’na bir Topbaş prensi,” Hurriyet, 4/21/99. Accessed 11/18/12.)

[18] Seyhan Sevinç and Oktay Yıldırım, “Saray Muhallebicisi’nden İstanbul’un patronluğuna,” Vatan, 3/29/04. Accessed 11/23/12.

[19] Mehtap Çiloğlu, “Her şey Bakırköy için,” Milliyet, 5/14/96, p. 7 and “Amaçım ekstra hizmet,” Milliyet, 5/26/96, p. 24

[20] Azer Bortaçina, “Camiden once bürokrat kıyımı,” Milliyet, 1/29/97, p. 16.

[21] Arife Avcu, “Kurtulmuş FP il Başkanı,” Hurriyet, 6/4/98, p.17. It has taken thirteen years for the various factions to finally reconcile. Only in 2012, following Erbakan’s death was Kurtulmuş was finally invited to join the AKP.

[22] For 1999 Beyoğlu district election results, click HERE. Accessed 11/21/12.

[23] For 2004 Municipal Election results, click HERE. Accessed 11/21/12.

[24] The CHP had a great deal of trouble finding a candidate. There were internal disagreement among the party’s leading figures Deniz Baykal backed Celal Doğan, then the mayor Gaziantep, but the party General Secretary Önder Sav opposed the choice. (Mahmut Övür, “CHP’nin İstanbul adayı Celal Doğan,” Sabah, 1/16/04. Accessed 11/21/12.) Finally the leaders settled on Sefa Sirmen, a former mayor of Izmit.

[25] For 1994 Municipal Election results, click HERE. Accessed 11/19/12.

[26] Case in point, at a meeting on February 19, 2001. Prime Minister Ecevit and President Sezer got into an argument over whether the former was taking all necessary measures to combat corruption. It ended with President Sezer throwing a copy of the constitution at the Prime Minister while yelling, “[The constitution] is like honey, pure and simple. You don’t know the constitution . . .Let’s take a look and understand.” At this point Ecevit got up and walked out, followed by his coalition partners. Within hours “shares plunged by some 14 points at the Istanbul Stock Exchange (IMKB), overnight interest rates shot to 760 percent from around 60 percent and foreign financiers withdrew some $4.7 billion.” (“Homemade crisis,” Turkish Daily News, 2/20/01 and “İpin koptuğu an,” Hurriyet, 2/20/01. Both accessed 11/21/12

[27] Not for nothing does “Ak” mean “pure” in Turkish.

[28] For 2002 General Election Results, click HERE. Accessed 11/29/12.

[29] There were other parties contesting, but they lacked a political base or funds. The nationalist MHP received around 5%, as did the Kurdish BDP. The BDP candidate, Ali Birdal was particularly interesting. A former human rights lawyer who had been the target of right-wing assassination attempts, he argued that the differences between AKP and CHP candidates were insufficient because the choice shouldn’t be “whether or not to vote for the neo-liberal policies and political monopoly of the AK Party and for the ultranationalist, chauvinistic, racist, discriminatory and militarist understanding of the CHP. We don’t have any problems with Kılıçdaroğlu, but voting for him means the approval of Article 301 [which criminalizes insults to Turkishness] and the approval of the discriminatory policies of the CHP.” (Yonca Poyraz Doğan, “Birdal: Voting for CHP candidates means approval of Article 301,” Today’s Zaman, 3/2/09. Accessed 11/18/12.)

[30] M. K. Kaya, “Turkish Political Corruption: The AKP, Too?” Turkey Analyst, 09/26/08. Accessed 11/23/12.

[31]Contenders as the next FM,” Turkish Daily News, 4/25/07. Accessed 11/24/12.

[32]CHP accuses AK Party deputy of dirty deal with printing house,” Today’s Zaman, 8/12/08. Accessed 11/23/12.

[33] You can view the debate HERE. Accessed 11/17/12.

[34]Parliament duel fails to live up to expectations,” Today’s Zaman, 9/26/08. Accessed 11/23/12.

[35] The fact that Firat was replaced by another Kurdish politician more in-synch with the party-line is telling in this regard. “AKP”de ikinci “Kılıçdaroğlu dalgası,” Radikal, 11/08/08. Accessed 11/23/12.

[36] And he DID.

[37] Istanbul’s parking situation is so dire that completely un-zoned space is often used for parking. Some of this space, however, is controlled by gangs who will demand payment from anyone making the mistake of parking in their territory. The problem is especially acute in the center of the city.

[38] Ayşe Arman, “Kılıçdaroğlu İstanbul’u lunapark mı sanıyor,” Hurriyet, 3/23/09. Accessed 11/15/12.

[39] Previously to 2009 there was no way to reach Taksim square without waiting in automobile traffic or fighting one’s way through pedestrian traffic. Now one could conceivably take a ferry from the Asian side or a tram on the European side to Karaköy, jump the funicular, walk to minutes to the new station, transfer at Taksim to the next line, and head all the way to the financial district in 4. Levent without ever having to climb a steep hill or deal with traffic. As the description implies, however, it was still a bit of a hassle and Kılıçdaroğlu was quick to ask, “Where in the world can you find such nonsense?” (Ayse Arman, “Rakibim Kadir Topbaş değil Başbakan Erdoğan,” Hurriyet, 3/22/09. Accessed 11/17/12.)

[40]Seçim polemiği çamura bulandı,” Radikal, 1/29/09. Accessed 11/20/12.

[41]Kılıçdaroğlu’ndan sert açıklama,” Hurriyet, 1/29/09. Accessed 11/19/12.

[42] Ayse Arman, “Rakibim Kadir Topbaş değil Başbakan Erdoğan,” Hurriyet, 3/22/09. Accessed 11/17/12.)

[43]Kılıçdaroğlu, Topbaş’a kılıcı çekti,” Hurriyet, 1/26/09. Acccessed 11/19/12.

[44]Topbaş oyunu CHP”ye at, sen de kurtul!Radikal, 2/21/09. Accessed 11/19/12.

[45] A very nice set of examples is available HERE (Güventürk Görgülü and Uğur Orakçı, “Belediye ihaleleri kimi kalkındırıyor?” HaberVesaire, 3/18/09. Accessed 11/19/12.

[46]Topbaş: Belge saklamak suç,” Hurriyet, 1/29/09. Accessed 11/19/12.

[47] As of 2012 this dynamic continues. The 2013 budget excludes the (now 25) municipal corporations from is debt calculations. (“İBB’nin borç bütçesi,” Yurt, 11/18/12. Accessed 11/22/12.)

[48]Kim bu Serdar Kepenek?Vatan, 3/19/09. Accessed 11/19/12.

[49]Kılıçdaroğlu’ndan havuz şirket iddiası,” Radikal, 3/20/09. Accessed 11/19/12.

[50]Alim Sudaş 3 şirkete ortak,” Miliyet, 3/25/09. Accessed 11/18/12.

[51] In Turkey, at election time, the parties draw up candidate lists and voters choose between party leaders, not people. The higher the percentage a party receives, the more candidates from its list gain seats. Candidates at the top of the list are virtually assured a seat and tend  to be party leaders. Those at the bottom stand no chance. Those in the middle’s chances are uncertain—they definitely aren’t vital to the party. Soysal was seventh out of twenty-one on the list in 2007 (HERE),  in 2011 he had fallen to eleventh out of twenty-seven (HERE).

[52]Kadir Topbaş’a çifte salvo,” Radikal, 2/4/09. Accessed 11/18/12.

[53]5 Yılda Rekorlara İmza Attık.” Accessed 11/19/12.

[54]Topbaş devletin imkanlarını kullanıyor,” Radikal, 3/5/09. Accessed 11/20/12.

[55] Şenol Coşkuner, “Kılıçdaroğlu ile Bekaroğlu aynı tavanın balıkları,” Hurriyet, 3/24/09. Accessed 11/20/12.

[56]Dosyayla geldi dosyayla gider,” Radikal, 3/25/09. Accessed 11/18/12.

[57]Topbaş’tan kitap afişi yorumu,” Hurriyet, 3/10/09. Accessed 11/18/12.

[58] Erhan Başyurt, “Will any dirt on Kılıçdaroğlu be dug up?Today’s Zaman, 1/26/09. Accessed 11/18/12  and Habib Güler, “BÇG raporlarından çıktı, CHP’nin yıldızı oldu,” Zaman, 9/24/08. Accessed 11/24/12.

[59] Yasın Kılıç, “İstanbul’da AK Parti 26 CHP 12, DSP 1 ilçe aldı,” Zaman, 3/31/09/ Accessed 11/23/12.

[60] See HERE. Accessed 11/20/12.

[61] Meltem Kara, “İşler çok kesat,” Hurriyet, 11/13/12. Accessed 11/19/20. p

[62] See HERE. Accessed 11/19/12.

[63] See HERE. Accessed 11/19/12.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s