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Does Istanbul mayor's ouster spell AKP shakeup?

Istanbul's mayor, a member of the Justice and Development Party, has appeared on post-coup Turkey's chopping block as the ruling party works to revitalize its base and prominent members jockey for the jobs.
Istanbul's Mayor Kadir Topbas delivers a speech during the groundbreaking ceremony of Taksim mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, February 17, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal - RC160DB5DBE0

The sudden resignation of Istanbul’s mayor this month has sparked speculation that others could be on the chopping block as part of a long-awaited overhaul of the ruling party’s ranks.

Kadir Topbas, the mayor of Turkey’s largest city since 2004, stepped down on Sept. 22, saying, “A man can forgive everything but being disrespected.” A rebellion by fellow Justice and Development Party (AKP) city councilors who overrode his veto of lucrative but controversial construction projects was widely cited as a factor in his decision.

In a sign the AKP is set to reshuffle, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Sept. 28 that “necessary steps” would be taken against mayors found to be involved in irregularities or out of touch with constituents.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) submitted a parliamentary query to Yildirim this week, asking for confirmation of rumors that as many as 50 mayors would be replaced by state-appointed administrators.

“Appointing civil servants to replace democratically elected mayors violates basic democratic principles,” CHP lawmaker Sezgin Tanrikulu, who authored the question, told Al-Monitor, adding he did not have more information other than what had been reported in the media.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from Erdogan’s office.

The government has forcibly removed 83 mayors and jailed nearly 100 in the mainly Kurdish southeast, but they belong to the political opposition. The AKP turning on its own party members is something new.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces mounting pressure to weed out suspected followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s former ally widely believed to have masterminded a failed military coup in July 2016. Some 111,600 judges, teachers, police officers and soldiers have been sacked from their jobs in a post-coup purge of Gulenists, while AKP officials have been largely spared.

Re-energizing the AKP base is another factor. A constitutional referendum giving Erdogan vast new powers scraped past in April with just 51.4% of the vote, prompting the president to vow he would combat “metal fatigue” in the party. Opinion polls signal support may be flagging ahead of municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019.

Newspapers quoted CHP official Ali Oztunc as saying the AKP could replace up to 10 mayors, including Melih Gokcek, Ankara’s eccentric chief for more than two decades. Gokcek frequently makes headlines with bizarre urban design choices and wild tweets that accuse the United States of engineering earthquakes that rock Turkey. No one from his office was available to immediately comment.

Sources in Gaziantep told Al-Monitor that Mayor Fatma Sahin has been largely sidelined in recent months, relegated to mostly ceremonial activities, although the city’s yes vote in the referendum may have given her a reprieve. No one from her office was available for comment.

“The rumors suggest a fairly extensive housecleaning,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey researcher at St. Lawrence University and a senior nonresident fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“This perhaps isn't very surprising, given the extent to which the party has been focused on pursuing enemies and purging dissent rather than addressing the nuts and bolts of delivering services to its constituents, which has always been the core of the party's allure for all but the most devoted,” he told Al-Monitor.

Another factor behind the expected shakeup is that prominent party members are now jockeying for the jobs, said Tanrikulu.

A state of emergency in the wake of the coup has largely sidelined parliament, with the government ruling by decree. “A lawmaker is already less effective now than a mayor or other local administrators,” he said. Once the constitutional changes enter into force in 2019, parliament will be “neutralized,” making mayorships more desirable for prominent party members, said Tanrikulu.

“Getting rid of the mayors might bring fresh blood, but it is more likely to be Erdogan loyalists, which doesn't solve the basic problem of demonstrating to wavering supporters that the AKP can still connect with their needs and concerns,” Eissenstat said.

Topbas appeared especially vulnerable after his son-in-law was jailed for a second time in June on charges he funneled money to the Gulen movement.

But Topbas’ greatest weakness may have been his failure to deliver Istanbul in the referendum. Ankara and Izmir, the second- and third-biggest cities, also rejected the controversial changes, but the loss of his hometown was surely a blow for Erdogan, who came from a poor waterfront neighborhood before becoming mayor in 1994.

Not only is Istanbul the cultural and economic heart of Turkey, responsible for a third of Turkey’s output and almost 20% of its population, its pious poor and expanding middle class are the AKP’s bedrock.

The mild-mannered Topbas, a party stalwart who he said he would remain in the AKP, oversaw a vast expansion of the city’s transportation links and a building boom that transformed the 8,000-year-old city’s skyline, leveled historical quarters and sparked bitter protests from residents angry over the loss of green space.

Less than a week after Topbas’ departure, Erdogan, more determined than ever to hold onto the municipality in 2019, tapped district mayor Mevlut Uysal for the post, wrote columnist Abdulkadir Selvi. Perhaps Erdogan is recalling Sultan Mehmed, who proclaimed before capturing Istanbul from the Byzantines in 1453, “Either I conquer Istanbul or Istanbul conquers me.”

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