x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Can this man topple Erdogan?

Mustafa Sarigul, a telegenic politician from Istanbul, may not have a political party at the moment, but he does have big plans.

ISTANBUL // Mustafa Sarigul, a telegenic politician from Istanbul, may not have a political party at the moment, but he does have big plans. Campaigning under the theme of change, Mr Sarigul is out to challenge Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the most powerful prime minister Turkey has had in decades, in parliamentary elections next year. "Our aim is to win enough votes to become the leading party," Mr Sarigul wrote in an e-mail.

He is the leader of Turkey's Change Movement, or TDH, an organisation he hopes to turn into a political party in the coming months. Mr Sarigul said it will be "a true social democratic party that is pro-change, pro-EU accession, pro-rights and freedoms of all". Mr Sarigul, 53, is the mayor of Sisli, a wealthy district in Istanbul's European part, but his ambitions are for a national role. His big bet is that voters are tired of Mr Erdogan, whose party has been in power for more than seven years, but do not yet know where to turn for an alternative. TDH officials say they have 700,000 volunteers in the 81 provinces of the country, a network that would be crucial in a campaign.

Polls show the TDH has started to attract partisans even without being an official party. One recent study put the support for the movement at six per cent, a remarkable figure for a political formation that does not officially exist yet. TDH officials put their support at about 13 per cent. In Turkey, parties need at least 10 per cent of the vote to enter parliament. Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is estimated at 30 per cent at the moment, down from almost 47 per cent in the last elections, in 2007.

"The 10 per cent threshold is not a source of fear for us," Faruk Logoglu, a former Turkish ambassador to Washington and Mr Sarigul's foreign policy adviser, told reporters in Istanbul. For all the optimism, Mr Sarigul's movement seems like it still is a work in progress in some key political areas. The TDH admits that it lacks positions on issues ranging from the headscarf to Cyprus. Turkey's political scene has seen many hopeful start-up parties that never made it to power. But Mr Sarigul's movement is being watched with special interest by political observers for several reasons. He is known on the national stage, has a grassroots organisation in place, and senses that voters are frustrated with both the AKP, which is accused of losing the reformist zeal of its early years, which saw the start of Turkey's EU accession talks in 2005, and the current opposition parties, especially on the Left.

Turkey's biggest opposition party, the Republican People's Party, or CHP, is widely criticised for dropping its former social democratic positions in favour of a more nationalist and sometimes anti-EU line close to the positions of the military. Mr Sarigul, a former CHP member, is trying to address disgruntled and reform-minded voters. But polls show the TDH may end up getting more votes from the AKP than from the CHP, TDH officials say. If the vote took place today, the CHP would garner around 20 per cent.

Mr Sarigul's central slogan echoes Barack Obama's successful US presidential campaign, and his use of volunteers in every corner of the country is something TDH officials say they have learnt from Mr Erdogan. Mr Sarigul has secured the support of several experienced advisers, such as Mr Logoglu and Hikmet Cetin, a former foreign minister, parliamentary speaker and Nato representative in Afghanistan.

The result is a political phenomenon that may shake up Ankara. After all, Mr Erdogan himself founded the AKP just one year before it was swept to power in an election in 2002. "There is a vacuum left by the CHP," Erol Tuncer, head of the Social Democratic Association, a pressure group, said from Ankara. "Sarigul is trying to fill that vacuum. But he is also trying to attract voters from other parties."

To lure voters away from competitors, the TDH presents itself as radically different, addressing young voters and women in particular. "We have a 30 per cent quota for women at all levels of the party," Mr Sarigul said. He also promises "a state that serves its citizens not the other way around" and "a secularism that respects all beliefs and all citizens' rights". tseibert@thenational.ae