x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Turkey's premier facing political test

The Prime Minister in a crucial electoral battle for the first time in years, as questions over corruption hit a nerve with country's voters.

ISTANBUL // Kemal Kilicdaroglu thinks he has found what Turkey's opposition has been lacking for years: an effective political weapon to corner Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, who has pulverised his opponents in election after election since 2002. "Fifteen or 20 years ago, Mr Erdogan did not even have the money to buy new studs for his football boots," Mr Kilicdaroglu, his voice hoarse from daily stump speeches, recently bellowed out in front of several hundred supporters at a rally in Sultan Gazi, a working class neighbourhood in the European part of Turkey's main city Istanbul. "Today, he is one of the richest heads of government in the world. Where does the money come from?" Mr Kilicdaroglu's efforts to suggest Mr Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, are corrupt have emerged as the central theme of the opposition campaign before Turkey's local elections on Sunday. Although Mr Erdogan is not a candidate in the polls, the vote is seen as a major political test for the prime minister. One of Mr Erdogan's aides has even suggested the country could head towards early general elections if the AKP does badly. As mayoral candidate in Istanbul for the main secular opposition group, the Republican People's Party, or CHP, Mr Kilicdaroglu is challenging the AKP in a city that has been ruled first by Mr Erdogan and then by the prime minister's supporters since 1994. Mr Kilicdaroglu's immediate opponent is Kadir Topbas, the ruling AKP mayor who is running for re-election. But fundamentally, the contest is between Mr Kilicdaroglu and Mr Erdogan, analysts say. "Prime Minister Erdogan has been throwing himself into the race [in Istanbul] as if he himself were the candidate," the respected pollster Adil Gur told the Taraf newspaper. If the AKP were to lose control of Ankara or Istanbul, it would be a "catastrophe" for the ruling party, he said. Few observers expect Mr Kilicdaroglu to take Istanbul, although his aides talk about a possible surprise on election day. Polls show Mr Kilicdaroglu trailing Mr Topbas by at least seven percentage points. With his grey hair and trademark rounded spectacles, Mr Kilicdaroglu looks more like a book-keeper than a formidable political player. When supporters on the campaign stage in Sultan Gazi made him join a traditional jig, he danced stiffly, looking around with a shy smile as if he expected someone to correct him. But the political significance of Mr Kilicdaroglu's rise lies in the fact that his attacks against what he calls examples of the AKP's corruption have hit a nerve with many people. According to the latest polls, Mr Kilicdaroglu can expect to win about 33.5 per cent of the vote in Istanbul, which would be almost 10 percentage points more than the CHP received in the last local elections in 2004. Last year, documents tabled by Mr Kilicdaroglu led to the resignation of two high-ranking AKP officials. "Corruption is one of the weakest points of the AKP," said Gursel Tekin, a former leader of the CHP in Istanbul and the party's candidate for the post of speaker of the city parliament. Under the AKP government, an "organised corruption" had developed, he said. The AKP, which was founded seven years ago with the promise of clean government, denies the accusations. Mr Gur, the pollster, said the AKP's share of the nationwide vote could fall to less than 40 per cent, which would be a drop of seven percentage points compared to the most recent general elections in 2007. A leading AKP official, Nihat Ergun, said this month that Turkey would be heading for early general elections if the AKP were to lose its position of the strongest party nationwide in this Sunday's local elections. He said a nationwide result of about 37 per cent for the AKP would be a "sharp warning" for the party. In Sultan Gazi, Mr Kilicdaroglu asked his supporters, who booed every time Mr Erdogan's name was mentioned, to "vote for honesty. We are opening a new page." That new page also involves a break with some of the CHP's traditional positions. Last year, the CHP made headlines by welcoming several women wearing the carsaf, a strictly Islamic veil covering the whole body, into the party in Istanbul. In Sultan Gazi, Mr Kilicdaroglu was joined on the stage by women wearing the Islamic headscarf. Only a year ago, the CHP turned to Turkey's constitutional court to block a bill that would have allowed women to enter university campuses with a headscarf. The court agreed with the CHP and cancelled the bill. "We have no problems" with women wearing the headscarf, said Mr Tekin, who is seen as the main architect behind the CHP's "headscarf opening", as the move has been dubbed by the press. "We are social democrats, we are open for all parts of the population, no matter if they wear the headscarf or the carsaf, or if they are Kurds or Armenians." Still, Mr Kilicdaroglu has been encountering some scepticism. When his candidacy for Istanbul was announced, Kadir Topbas, the mayor, made the most of the fact that Mr Kilicdaroglu, who has been a parliamentary deputy in Ankara, is new in town. Mr Topbas joked that he would give Mr Kilicdaroglu a city guide to find his way around Istanbul. Some voters in the crowd watching Mr Kilicdaroglu in Sultan Gazi also said they did not trust the CHP candidate because he does not have local roots. "I don't know who I am going to vote for but I will not vote for Kilicdaroglu," said one man, Mehmet Agca. "He is a stranger."

tseibert@thenational.ae