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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Playing politics with council boundaries

'A minor fracas' is the best way to describe the fuss caused by Turkish MPs' decision to cut up one of Istanbul's most prominent council districts and combine it with its larger, northerly neighbour. The MPs were meeting in committee to  discuss a law to upgrade a number of Turkey's smaller cities to 'metropolitan city' status, but government members of the panel managed to sneak in an amendment to rejig the local political map of the country's largest city. As they stand, the law would see the northern part of Şişli merged into Sarıyer.

For a clearer understanding of what all the fuss is about, kindly consider this map of Istanbul's administrative districts and political colours of the mayor who won at the last election.

Although no district is labeled on this map, Şişli is easy to spot: in navy, it is the only one where the Democratic Left Party (DSP) was victorious. Nope, that's not two districts, but one district with an exclave. Have another map:

Şişli was cleft twain in 1987 when Kağıthane (yellow on the second map) was promoted to become a district of its own. Of the old district's rump, the southern partition remained the centre, containing council facilities and much of the city that had sprung up since the 1950s; the north, meanwhile, was home to three indistinct neighbourhoods: Ayazağa, Huzur and Maslak. It looks to me like it was a bizarre decision. After all, what use is your council if you have to travel through a whole other district to get to it?

So from an utterly apolitical perspective, combining Şişli northern exclave into Sarıyer makes some sense.

Of course, there is a political perspective and it has caused enough of a stink for Şişli's mayor, Mustafa Sarıgül, to drop everything and rush to Ankara for some urgent lobbying.

You see, the three neighbourhoods in the northern exclave have become rather wealthy since the ill-advised map drawing session of 1987. Ayazağa is the site to the new stadium for Galatasaray football club and Maslak has become an international business centre, home to banks and luxury apartments and their skyscrapers. Maslak is in fact poster-child for all those evening photographs of Istanbul taken in an unsuccessful attempt to make the town look like Manhattan. There is money to be made there and Mr Sarıgül would be a fool not to fight to keep it.

Ayazağa is larger than Maslak and Huzur combined, both in terms of area and population: there were 22,622 registered voters there at the last local election in 2009, as against 6622 in Huzur and just 1224 in Maslak.

In comments carried today by Hürriyet, Istanbul MP Celal Dinçer said last night's amendment was clearly political: voters in Ayazağa supported the AK Party over his centre-left CHP by almost a 4-1 margin and the CHP only won Sarıyer at the last election only by a narrow margin. The charge is clear: the AK Party wants to make sure they can capture Sarıyer at next year's council elections by shifting over loyal voters.

At the last election in the three contested Şişli neighbourhoods, the AK Party candidate to become mayor of Şişli won 6698 votes. His CHP rival won 1925. So Mr Dinçer's claimed AK margin is quite true. But he omits to mention the left vote in Şişli was split by the current mayor, who contested the election on the Democratic Left Party (DSP) ticket. Here is what actually happened:

It's also worth looking at the result in the neighbourhood of Ayazağa alone:

So Mustafa Sarıgül comfortably swept all three neighbourhoods, with a slight swing to the AK Party in Ayazağa. He certainly trounced his namesake running on the CHP ticket. He is a personality politician: 2009 was his third consecutive victory as mayor and he is remarkably popular in his district. Indeed, his ego was so inflated he dabbled in national politics - and lost - when he challenged the former CHP leader (more background on this from me here). Should he run again for mayor, he is likely to win.

As for Sarıyer, I would contend that the new districts would only help the CHP's cause unless there is a sea change between now and the next election. It's a view that appears to be shared by Sarıyer's CHP mayor Şükrü Genç, who said when asked about the boundary change:

"In local elections, you are judged not on your political position but on what you do, what you say you are going to do and how persuasive you are. The people of Sarıyer have known me well over the last three-and-a-half years. We discriminated no-one on the basis of politics, ethnicity or lifestyle. We targeted all over the 350,000 people who live here. That's why I don't think we will have a great problem at the elections."

Mr Genç also said that he had lobbied the Interior ministry for the very same change three years ago but was turned away.

Bear in mind this amendment has only come of the committee stage and needs to be approved by all MPs - and the president - before it becomes law. Will someone in the AK Party realise before then that this particular game of politics is not worth it?

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