ISTANBUL — Turkey is in the midst of one of it most important and bitterly contested election campaigns in decades. Nowhere is the campaign more intense than in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and home to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Istanbul has been the bastion of the ruling AK Party for two decades, but that rule is now under threat from a candidate for city mayor who is as controversial and mold-breaking as the prime minister himself.
Addressing a crowd of thousands in one of Istanbul’s poor neighborhoods, Mustafa Sarigul of the center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, promised social justice and an end to what he calls the divisive politics of the AK Party, which has ruled Istanbul for 20 years.
Taking a break from the campaign trail, 58-year-old Sarigul sweeps into his office and offers an iron handshake. Pausing for a moment, he acknowledges he shares something important with the man he sees as his chief rival -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“There are only two people in Turkish politics who have come from nothing and risen to the top,” he said: “me and prime minister. My father was a worker, was an apartment superintendent. I am coming from a working class background and I’ve been in politics since I was 15. I worked at every level of politics,” he continued.
Sarigul said he has been fighting for social equality since he was a young school boy.
“Coming from a poor family, we poor children were always placed at the back of the classroom,” he said. “I started thinking: why I am sitting in the back row while the rich ones enjoy the front rows. I started organizing the kids in the back rows and always challenged those in the front.”
Sarigul said Turkish politics, like the wider society, is still dominated by class -- even, he acknowledges, within his own party.
Kadri Gursel of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet and the Al Monitor website said Sarigul’s candidacy is groundbreaking for the opposition CHP.
"Mr. Sarigul is not a typical CHP candidate; he has a capacity to reach out to almost every sector of the society in Istanbul. His campaign is not based on polarizing policies and he is not alienating people on ideological ground[s]," said Gursel.
Even on the thorny question of religion in society, Sarigul is breaking from his party's traditional approach. The CHP portrays itself as defender of the secular state -- and, until recently, supported restrictions on the wearing of religious head scarves by Muslim women. The Islamist-rooted AK Party has been successful in portraying its rival as anti-Muslim -- a serious handicap, analysts say, in a conservative society like Turkey. But Sarigul claims he embraces his Islamic faith.
“I am from a devout family,” he said. “But I am close to all religious communities living here: I visit churches, synagogues; everyone knows my stance towards religion. For prayer, I go to small unknown mosques across the city, in order not to be seen by the media. I don’t want my faith to be apart of politics,” he said. “Faith is for reaching God, not power.”
Sarigul is at home in both religious and secular neighborhoods in Istanbul, and according to several polls is running neck and neck with the AK Party.
Former newspaper editor Yasmin Congar said Istanbul is of crucial importance to the AK Party.
"Oh, it would be a huge loss. It would be like losing Turkey, because Istanbul is the dynamo of the whole society: politically, economically, culturally -- everything happens in Istanbul. It would be a huge loss, it would be the beginning of the end for AKP if they lost Istanbul," said Congar.
A recording has surfaced, purportedly of Prime Minister Erdogan talking to a media boss, telling him to stop reporting on Sarigul. Apologizing, the media boss promises to comply. Sarigul has become largely invisible in much of the media.
The AK Party strongly denies that it is exerting this kind of pressure, but such accusations and concerns are increasingly being heard across the city. Nonetheless, few people are expecting Sarigul to give up his battle to become mayor of Istanbul without a fight.