Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opponents have pinned their hopes on Mustafa Sarigul, Turkey’s most popular center-left politician and the mayor of Sisli district, the “Manhattan” of Istanbul. Most anti-Erdogan media believe that Sarigul is the only person who could unseat Erdogan.
It is interesting, though, that Sarigul, someone I know personally, has not uttered a single word targeting Erdogan. On the contrary, he has always praised him and accorded more attention to pro-Erdogan commentators than leftist ones.
Sarigul has based his political strategy on standing close to liberals and pious Muslims. Despite his leftist background, he has always acted as a rightist and sometimes even as an Islamist politician, hence his attitude of not criticizing Erdogan. In his speeches Sarigul praises Erdogan as a great leader who has governed Turkey successfully but who is now tired and should hand over his post.
So, Turkish politics is going through a bizarre chapter in which a politician praising Erdogan is seen as the strongest candidate to unseat Erdogan.
Sarigul will run for Istanbul mayor in the March 2014 municipal elections as a candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). This is now certain. Opinion polls indicate that he currently enjoys 37% support. The support for incumbent mayor, Kadir Topbas of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), stands at 45%. Given that Erdogan’s journey to power started from Istanbul, the plan to defeat him is also being built around Istanbul.
Even if he fails to win Istanbul, Sarigul will still profit from running in the election. Recently I had a lengthy lunch with him. I have the impression that he will target the CHP chairmanship after the municipal polls, based on the assumption that Sarigul would lose the race in Istanbul with about 38% of the vote. The CHP, meanwhile, is expected to garner a national average of about 23%. This would cast doubt on CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s leadership, and Sarigul would make an attempt to clinch his post. It is quite likely that Sarigul will be heading the CHP as of May 2014.
Sarigul, meanwhile, is under fire from some leftist commentators who argue that he avoids criticizing Erdogan not as a political tactic, but because he is extremely corrupt. According to their theory, the AKP holds myriad dossiers on Sarigul’s corrupt practices and philandering ventures. Hence, Sarigul holds back from targeting the AKP.
Here is how the pro-CHP leftist commentator, Gurkan Hacir, depicts Sarigul: “Which district of Istanbul has the most chaotic traffic, most polluted air and worst urbanization? Which municipality has the largest debt? What do you think? Let me give one answer to all questions: It is Sisli. Then, how come Sisli Mayor Sarigul is credited as the most successful mayor and, beyond that, is being marketed as the new hope of the left? Have you ever asked yourself? I have. The answer is hidden in Sarigul’s PR-designed life.”
Hacir goes on to summarize Sarigul’s personal history.
“Mustafa Sarigul was born in 1956 in the village of Gungoren in the Ilic district of Erzincan province. He finished primary school in Gungoren. Like many other Anatolian peasants, his family barely made a living in the village and headed to Istanbul. His father, Hakki, an unskilled man, took a job as a janitor in a building in the posh Nisantasi neighborhood. Despite all the hardship, he wanted to give his children education. Mustafa enrolled in the Sisli Secondary School, after which he attended the Zincirlikuyu Construction Vocational High School.
“As a young man, Sarigul became acquainted almost simultaneously with the two institutions that would change his life: the CHP and the municipality. He had joined the CHP youth branches and got a job at the IETT [the municipality-run Istanbul Electricity, Tram and Tunnel Company]. Istanbul deputy Abdurrahman Koksaloglu, a native of Sivas, was to become Sarigul’s role model in the CHP. Like Sarigul, he sat at the municipal assembly before being elected to parliament from Istanbul in 1973. Sarigul was almost a fixture in Koksaloglu’s home.
“Koksaloglu had two daughters: Hulya and Aylin. Hulya had a heart hole, and doctors did not expect her to live long. During his frequent visits, Sarigul was attracted to Hulya, who in turn, was eager to put on a wedding gown for once in her ailing existence. Koksaloglu, however, objected. He didn’t trust Sarigul. Eventually, he bowed down to his sick daughter’s wishes, but put one condition: ‘No children.’ The doctors had also warned that her ailing heart would not endure a pregnancy. Mustafa managed to get Hulya’s hand with a promise to have no children, becoming the son-in-law of CHP’s most prominent man in Istanbul. But, as expected, he did not keep his promise. Hulya Sarigul got pregnant. In Mustafa’s view, having children was [one of] God’s ‘commandments’ that should not be disobeyed. The couple had a son, whom they named Abdurrahman Emir.
“Koksaloglu owned a Pirelli retail shop on Abide-i Hurriyet Avenue called ‘Oto Sivasli.’ He also ran a car park and cab services. Two far-right militants came one evening to the tire shop. One stood on watch at the door, while the other stormed in, firing two rounds at Koksaloglu who was working at his desk. Both bullets pierced Koksaloglu’s heart. He managed to get up and drag himself into the storage room, where he collapsed on the floor. He underwent surgery but could not be saved. Keeping the business running was now up to two people: the young son-in-law, Mustafa Sarigul, and the errand-boy — Bayram Ozata. In later years, Ozata was to become an unchanging deputy mayor and see his fortunes flourish, establishing the Ozata Corporate Group.
“At Koksaloglu’s funeral, Sarigul shouldered the coffin with then-Istanbul Mayor Aytekin Kotil. It was now time to get close to Kotil. A year after her father’s death, Hulya Sarigul also passed away. Mustafa Sarigul’s political fortunes were meanwhile growing. In the 1987 general elections, he entered the race from the preliminaries and emerged as the youngest ever parliament member. In 1993, he married Aylin Kotil, Aytekin Kotil’s niece.
“Sarigul’s political career got a major boost thanks to Husamettin Ozkan, Turkey’s number-two strongman from 1997 to 2002. Ahead of the 1999 local elections, Sarigul spent hours at the Democratic Left Party (DSP) headquarters and is rumored to have wept after realizing he would not be fielded as a candidate. His ambitions were taking him over. But Ozkan used his clout in Sarigul’s favor to field him as candidate for Sisli mayor. He has retained the post ever since, serving as Sisli mayor for 15 years. His popularity, however, comes primarily from funerals. Hence his nickname as ‘a mourner in the funeral home, a tambourine player in the wedding hall.’ He has never missed a funeral at the Tesvikiye mosque. Moreover, one could come across a funeral vehicle of the Sisli Municipality in any corner of Anatolia. The vehicles are at the disposal of anybody requesting transportation [of a dead person] to any city. A vehicle carrying the Sisli Municipality logo is always available for service.
“Sarigul has always had good ties with the media, too. Many TV journalists, who would not stop glorifying him, had their programs sponsored by Milimetrik Insaat, a construction company owned by Sarigul’s son, Emir. Another of his companies had an ironic name: Maritza, which means ‘endless partnership’ in Latin.
“Out of Turkey’s 500 largest companies, 420 have their head offices in Sisli. To run their businesses smoothly, they need to be on ‘good’ terms with the municipality. ‘Good’ ties with Sarigul mean smooth business. That’s the main novelty Sarigul brought to Sisli.
“Take the case of a Turkish conglomerate, the undisputed number one of the pharmaceutical sector, which had assumed that obtaining a permit for its planned shopping mall would suffice. It didn’t seek ‘good’ ties with Sarigul. The result was a disaster. The construction was finished, the shops were ready to open, but the required municipal licenses were not forthcoming. Sick and tired, the conglomerate’s boss headed to Ankara to complain of Sarigul to [then-CHP leader] Deniz Baykal. He still used polite language, saying that Sarigul was raising unnecessary issues. Baykal phoned Sarigul and told him to ‘please help the gentleman’ as much as the law allows. Sarigul was not after a fight but only ‘good’ ties. ‘One last “paper” is missing, sir. As soon as they get it ready, I’ll issue the license,’ he said. The missing ‘paper’ was presented, and thus ‘good’ ties were established.
“Sarigul had miraculous ways of creating building plots. The road to Ferikoy, for instance, was allocated to a construction company. No, you have not misread the sentence! A construction company erected a luxury residential building right on Lalasahin Avenue. The road is now curving around that building. The construction company was known to have established ‘good’ ties with Sarigul.
“Could Sarigul win Istanbul? The opinion polls suggest he is standing a chance. He may eventually win. But on one condition: if Erdogan allows him to win. The Sisli Municipality’s dossiers are in store at the Interior Ministry and may abruptly go public when things heat up. And Sarigul is the one who knows that best. That’s why he makes sure to make weekly calls to Mrs. Emine Erdogan [the prime minister’s wife], whom he addresses as ‘abla’ [elder sister]. That’s why he hugs and kisses Topbas, his potential rival, like a cheeky child when they come across each other at a funeral, and says that, ‘If Topbas is in the race, I’m out.’”
So, that’s how pro-CHP commentator Hacir sees it. Sarigul’s political future is a truly intriguing matter.