A clearer picture in Istanbul

We now have a better idea of who’s running for the third most important job in Turkish politics

Kadir Topbaş, AK Party; Mustafa Sarıgül, CHP (presumptive); Rasim Acar, MHP; Sırrı Süreyya Önder, HDP
Kadir Topbaş, AK Party; Mustafa Sarıgül, CHP (presumptive); Rasim Acar, MHP; Sırrı Süreyya Önder, HDP

Turkey’s third party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has announced an architect and transport planner as its candidate for mayor of Istanbul.

It’s a surprise, because most commentators were expecting the nominee to be Osman Durmuş, a former health minister. He would have been the MHP’s answer to Kadir Topbaş and Mustafa Sarıgül, respectively the nominee and presumptive nominee of Turkey’s two largest parties. Both of them are instantly recognisable and media-friendly.

Mr Durmuş is not recognisable. He hasn’t been in office since his party lost the 2002 election and has spent barely any of his career in Istanbul. But it is still a surprise that the MHP decided not to respond to the populist candidates of its two bigger rivals with a poor imitation of its own.

Looking snappy: Rasim Acar
Snappy: Rasim Acar

Instead, the nationalists have gone for Rasim Acar, who at 37 is three decades younger than Mr Durmuş.

Mr Acar studied as a town planner at Istanbul Technical University. He then spent three years working in the transport department of the very council he now wants to lead. He has never been a member of parliament nor elected to any council.

It could be a shrewd move. By deliberately not appointing the most recognisable name they have got, the MHP could be trying to turn a personality contest into one over policy. That’s unlikely to happen when the country’s most important mayoralty is at stake.

Clearer faces

Mr Acar will face Mr Topbaş, the current mayor who has already been nominated as the AK Party candidate for a third term.

Also running is Sırrı Süreyya Önder, MP for Istanbul and mayoral candidate for the Democratic Party of the Peoples (HDP), which is running in alliance with the pro-Kurdish BDP. Mr Önder’s candidacy was much debated over concerns that he would split the left vote and hand the victory to Mr Topbaş over the CHP candidate.

Şişli mayor Mustafa Sarıgül
Confident: Mustafa Sarıgül

That candidate has not yet been announced, although as far as the Turkish press are concerned it will be Mr Sarıgül, the three-time mayor of Şişli who recently returned to the CHP. He is certainly behaving like he is the nominee as he tours the country with his rhetoric about “changes to come” after election day, 30 March 2014. But the party’s deputy leader Gürsel Tekin is also running: he announced his candidacy before Mr Sarıgül returned to the CHP and has not withdrawn.

The decision rests with party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who apparently let slip during his recent visit to the United States that Mr Sarıgül is the one. That would mean a run-off similar to Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s own battle with Mr Topbaş in 2009, which was one of the closest Turkish mayoral contests in decades.

Clearer contest

So the next round of the Great Personality Contest begins. There are plenty of local, big city issues that should inspire Istanbulites to vote: housing is expensive, traffic unbearable and green space under constant threat. The street protests of this past summer, let us not forget, were triggered by the council’s plans to remove a smallish park in the city centre.

But the Istanbul mayoralty election is not just about the city’s inhabitants, some 13,854,740 of them at the last count. This is Turkey’s largest city and its mayor answers to a huge electorate. Only the Turkish president is elected by more people; after him and the prime minister, the Mayor of Istanbul is the third most important job in Turkish politics.

Kadir Topbaş
Assured: Kadir Topbaş

It is that job that the AK Party came close to losing to Mr Kılıçdaroğlu in 2009. It does not want to repeat the exercise. The CHP must win the mayoralty if it wants to establish any credibility as a party capable of government. The HDP wants to demonstrate voter power in what is also one of the largest Kurdish cities in the world.

It seems unlikely that Mr Acar will be heard too loudly among that crowd. But if he can produce some interesting ideas on policy, it might not be the last we heard of him.

For more about the candidates, see James in Turkey’s Istanbul election page.

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