Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not only facing the most serious crisis of his 11-year leadership. His slipping popularity also means he faces the possibility of humiliation in his own back yard – with defeat for his candidate in elections for the mayor of Istanbul.
He has dominated Turkey‘s politics for more than a decade and for much of that time has been regarded as one of the strongest Turkish leaders since the death of Ataturk, the country’s founder.
But now Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s prime minister since 2003, is not only facing the most serious crisis of his 11-year leadership, as members of his inner circle are mired in a corruption investigation that has thrown him into a power struggle against some of his previously staunchest allies.
For the first time, his slipping popularity also means he faces the possibility of humiliation at the polls in his own back yard.
Mustafa Sarigul, a former MP and Istanbul politician, is the opposition standard bearer in next month’s election for mayor of the city – which, with more than 14 million inhabitants, is by far the most important electoral prize in local elections across this country of 80 million.
Istanbul, on the Bosphorus, has long served as Mr Erdogan’s power base and he himelf was its mayor between 1994 and 1998. But the schisms and scandals that have engulfed him, and his ruling AKP party of moderate Islamists, have put the city up for grabs.
Now Mr Sarigul believes he can win over voters who have been loyal to Mr Erdogan for a generation to the opposition Republican party, known by its Turkish initials, CHP – a result that would cause a political earthquake across Turkey.
He is campaigning to prove it – and an event in Umraniye last week – a district whose devout working-class residents, the women mostly in headscarves, used to be the bedrock of Mr Erdogan’s support – showed why he may be right.
After years of Turkish prosperity, slums have been replaced by blocks of flats. A small army of women wearing yellow flowers and blouses – Sarigul means yellow rose in Turkish – assembled as Mr Sarigul, 57, displayed his populist charms.
Atop a campaign bus he steadily pumped his fist in time to his campaign song, pointing at faces in the crowd as he sang along. He appealed to elderly women to vote for him, declaring: “I want to be a son to you.”
Singling out an almost toothless man he declared: “I have watched you inside and outside. You are a handsome man! Why haven’t you had your teeth fixed? Go and get some dentures, and send the bill to me.”
Paying the bills of supporters is an undisguised fact of Turkish political life, and allegations of favours and corruption are now dogging Mr Erdogan. Among a raft of recent allegations have been claims – strenuously denied – that his associates were involved in a complex sanctions-busting, gold-smuggling ring worth billions between Iran and the Gulf, via Turkey.
At the same time he has been weakened by the bitter power struggle that has broken out with the Hizmet religious movement run by his former ally, Fethullah Gulen. Mr Gulen, an Islamic preacher, fled to exile in the US in the 1990s but his middle-class religious movement has deep roots in Turkish politics and the bureaucracy.
The litigious Mr Ergogan has accused foreign intelligence agencies and the media of orchestrating a campaign of defamation but his party’s support has slipped, none the less, from above 50 per cent in the 2011 general election to 38 per cent in recent polls.
His allies regard police and prosecutors involved in the investigations as being part of a “parallel state” that is determined to hound him from office, and eventually into jail.
“It is quite clear that those involved are smearing those around him in order, ultimately, to target him,” said one official close to Mr Erdogan. “He will not allow this to change the game.”
Feyzi Isbasaran, a former member of Mr Erdogan’s party who was once executive assistant to former president, Turgut Ozal, said: “Sarigul is lucky. The election for the mayor of Istanbul is not only a local vote but a moment for the Turkish republic. Because of that, people who are against the prime minister have united behind Sarigul. The wind is turning against Erdogan.”
Pressure on Mr Erdogan has grown steadily since the death of seven protesters in central Istanbul last year, when riot police crushed demonstrations against proposed redevelopment of the city’s central Gezi Park by developers close to Mr Erdogan. The clashes were a turning point for a younger generation which had previously shunned politics.
Mr Sarigul is exploiting anger over that incident for all it is worth, even though he too favours some more limited development. He has pledged to commission a range of architects to draw-up competing designs for the park, and to put the winning submission to a referendum.
Aready the mayor of a smaller and up-market Istanbul district, Sisli, Mr Sarigul has accumulated photographs of his encounters with other big city leaders whom he wants to emulate. Among them is Boris Johnson, and Mr Sarigul believes that a Turkish equivalent of the London Eye is what Gezi Park, and Istanbul, needs.
“Like Boris, I want to have a landmark to sell Istanbul to the world,” he said. “The Gezi deaths happened as a result of wrong decisions of the municipalityand the first thing that must happen is that the people responsible must go. Then, when I am mayor, Istanbul will have a democratic vote on the park.”
He seeks to win over supporters of Mr Erdogan’s AK party by identifying the prime minister as his true opponent in the mayoral election. “This is a political battle between Erdogan and me. My direct opponent is himself and everywhere he goes he tells his supporters how key the battle is for Istanbul.”
Three sweeping victories in successive general elections since he took office in 2003 ensured Mr Erdogan enjoyed a global reputation as the leading democratic politician from a majority Muslim country.
But the suppression of the protests has seen the enthusiasm of Western allies cool. “Erdogan was praised as a model of Islamic leadership but we did overlook the fact that Turkey was not much of democracy,” said a Whitehall official.
Now former Gezi Park protest organisers are channelling their energies into ensuring the Istanbul election is not “stolen” by the ruling party.
Burcak Unsal, a lawyer for Google Turkey and activist, runs a 1,000-strong network, Democracy and Justice Volunteers, who have committed to working with the opposition to develop alternative policies to those advocated by the AK Party. His tech-savvy volunteers are also determined expose any potential irregularities in the March 31 local elections across Turkey.
“Gezi style protests are not sustainable in the face of the police response, so we won’t see the street clashes like before,” he said. “But we remain as committed as ever to physically ensuring that our rights are respected. We have 45 days to mobilise for democracy in Turkey.”