All Politics Is Local: Mustafa Sarıgül and the CHP (Part One)
[People ask,] “Why are you always beating up on Sarıgül?” Let’s start the matter from here. I ask you: in this country has there ever been a party like the Republican People’s Party, which—without having done a bit of work—turns to the left for its votes? There’s never been such a freeloading party…I don’t know how many hundred suits [Sarıgül] has—he’s changing them twice a day. He doesn’t even know how many stylists he has. Can benefits come to the workers from all this? Can we approve of such a thing?...A social democrat can’t be like this. - Sırrı Süreyya Önder
To many of its detractors, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) has been rotten from the start. From its privatization of state companies to its alcohol regulations, from its urban renewal programs that uproot communities to its persistent rent seeking, from its divisive language to its contempt for the environment—all these failings were baked in from the start. As local elections approach and the AKP finds itself more politically weak than at any time in its past eleven years in power, there seems to be a chance that it can be beaten. For better and worse, Mustafa Sarıgül, the mayor of Istanbul’s Şişli municipality who is currently running to become mayor of Istanbul when local elections are held on 30 March, is the vessel for such hopes.
But who is Mustafa Sarıgül, the man who hopes to run the eighth largest city in the world? Does he represent a clear alternative to the AKP—or, more importantly, a better one? To listen to his speeches or read his recent campaign autobiography provides few clues. If anything, one comes away feeling that the man has no political beliefs at all; as his critics suggest, he appears to be a power-loving cypher. But the reality is that Sarıgül has spent over thirty years in Turkish politics—a time period that has included extreme political violence, massive economic reforms, a military coup, civil war in the southeast, economic crisis, and the rise of an Islamic political movement. In navigating such events, he has made choices; whether or not these amount to anything approaching an “ideology,” they certainly suggest the sort of mayor he might be, and what the future might hold for Turkish politics.
Sarıgül moved with his family to Şişli when he was only eight years old. Until then, he had lived in Güngören, a small village in the province of Erzincan, where the Sarıgüls were an important family. His grandfather attended the 1919 Erzurum congress, fought in the War of Independence, then continued to serve in the army and actively supported the republican government’s reforms. His loyalty to the Republican People’s Party (CHP) continued into the 1950s, even after the party had lost power—and even after “all of the village” had turned to the Democrat Party (DP). His family’s continuing allegiance to the former ruling party is never really explained; at best, Sarıgül suggests that his grandfather and father loved the party out of respect for its leaders and their role in the revolution.
Another sign of the family’s status in the village can be seen in the exploits of Sarıgül’s father, Hakkı. He was among the first to leave the village for the city, part of a growing flow of rural Turks moving into urban areas beginning in the 1950s. In the cities, a young man like Hakkı would likely have relied on local connections to secure a job—and he certainly became involved in CHP politics. By 1966, Hakkı had secured a job as a private chauffer for the owner of a knitwear company, and brought Mustafa and his mother to Istanbul.
The issue of higher education was what first drew Sarıgül into politics. Along with classmates, he participated in protests led by the Progressive Students Union calling on the government to give admissions advantages to students who attended vocational-technical schools. His father, who was serving as a CHP delegate by the mid-1970s, urged him to devote his time to the CHP’s Youth Arm instead of student politics.
The Youth Arm was the party’s main tool for organizing rallies and mobilizing its supporters. Throughout the CHP’s years in power, this task of connecting with the people had been accomplished through local institutions called “People’s Houses” and “People’s Rooms.” In opposition, the DP had argued that these were merely propaganda tools for the CHP (or, worse, potential sources for Communist infiltration), and following its election, the DP closed them down. In response to these closures, the CHP moved to found the Youth Wing in 1951. By 1954, it had a board of directors—tellingly, two of the eight went on to become heads of the party; the Youth Arm was a good platform for a political career.
When Sarıgül joined the CHP, it had just emerged from a successful electoral campaign in 1973. Under Ecevit’s leadership, the party had won a plurality of the vote. In order to form a government, however, it was necessary to form an unwieldy coalition with the leading Islamic party. Though many party members blanched at the notion of bringing an anti-secularist party into the government and, in effect, legitimizing it, other leaders like Deniz Baykal, a leading CHP thinker, argued, “Politics is the art of continuous coalition,” and supported the merger.
It was short-lived. Within ten months, the coalition had fallen apart and been replaced by a united front of conservative parties. The loss of power spurred a round of recriminations. Led by Deniz Baykal, a number of party members began challenging Ecevit’s hold over the party, arguing that he was turning the party into a one-man show similar to İnönü. At the 1975 party congress, they proposed an alternative slate of candidates for the leadership. Though their challenge was easily fended off by Ecevit and his allies, within four years those same allies would be criticizing Ecevit as well.
Histories and memoirs recounting these political squabbles give little indication of any ideological content—participants emphasize the need for more internal party democracy, but suggest no wider divisions in terms of political belief. It is easy to dismiss party disputes as mere factional power struggles, but they did occur in a larger context of war with Greece, economic crisis, rising American influence, and spiraling violence. Not helping matters, party leaders like Ecevit described their political struggles in rather dire terms. Speaking in front of the Youth Arm in late 1974, for example, Ecevit argued, “In our country, a very dangerous game is being played. Its main target is the CHP. More specifically, its target is the democratic left which sprouted and flowered in the CHP and is now seen taking root in the soil of Turkey.”
Present for such speeches, Sarıgül was becoming an increasingly active member of the Youth Arm. As he recalls, his activities consisted mainly of leading cheers at rallies, signing up friends and acquaintances as party members, and painting slogans like “Populist Ecevit” on buildings during the night. Yet even such simple actions were not without risk in the 1970s: Turkish youths supporting the CHP were squeezed between more extreme peers. During the decade, many young people preferred to join leftist groups like the Revolutionary Youth or rightist ones like the Nationalist Hearths. The areas around university campuses throughout the country were becoming battlegrounds, as armed groups fought for control. Politicians would give cover to like-minded extremist groups operating in their areas, allowing them to recruit new members from the sprawling urban slums into which migrants were flocking throughout the decade.
Amid the violence and the factional struggles, Sarıgül was becoming acquainted with party leaders. In 1976, he attended a camp for party activists in the southern city of Mersin. Among the camp instructors were Ali Topuz, the leader of the CHP’s Istanbul faction, and Abdurrahman Köksaloğlu, the CHP’s Şişli powerbroker. This latter connection would be incredibly important for Sarıgül: a year later, Köksaloğlu nominated him for the presidency of the CHP’s Şişli Youth Arm, thus elevating him to one of the highest unelected positions within the local party.
As a leading party organizer at the local level, Sarıgül was becoming a target for violence. A house he and other party members shared was fired on, and the CHP’s Şişli office was bombed. Sarıgül only avoided the bomb blast because he was in his office at the time and not on the steps where it exploded.
Understandably, from the beginning, his family—his mother in particular—worried about him getting mixed up in such a violent business as politics. Sarıgül reassured her that membership in the Youth Arm would be good, since it opened the door to state jobs. His account of their conversation reveals a lot about what truly mattered in the politics of the 1970s:
My mom, hearing the words “door to the state,” relaxed. Half-heartedly, she said, “Go then.” For one who migrates from the village to the city, state jobs are immensely important.
Sarıgül learned about local politics in an environment where patronage was of the utmost importance, municipal jobs were tightly bound to political affiliation, and internal party disputes could cost one his livelihood. In the 1977 municipal elections, Köksaloğlu and Altınay, the mayor of Şişli, backed different candidates for mayor. Köksaloğlu’s candidate, Aytekin Kotil, won, but Sarıgül felt it necessary to resign his job in Altınay’s municipality. He was nineteen years old now anyway, and he needed to start thinking about his future more carefully. He did a bit of elementary school teaching and considered going to school in Konya, but Köksaloğlu convinced him to stay in Istanbul and continue his party work. Köksaloğlu liked Sarıgül a great deal; what he liked less was learning that Sarıgül had been conducting a surreptitious relationship with his daughter, Hüyla. By 1979 the relationship had grown more serious and the two felt the time had come to reveal it to Köksaloğlu and ask for his approval of their marriage. It came grudgingly. Some have depicted Sarıgül’s pursuit of Hüyla, a sickly girl with a powerful father, as mere ladder-climbing, but Sarıgül speaks of her fondly even today. Looking back, Sarıgül empathizes with her father: “[Köksaloğlu] was like any girl’s father. He wanted Hüyla to have the best fate in marriage. I was just at the start of my life, very young, my future unclear—moreover broke.”
The newlyweds managed to have a pleasant honeymoon in Romania, before returning once more to Istanbul, where Sarıgül continued his mix of party and municipal work. Having backed Istanbul’s current mayor, he had gained a job in the Istanbul Electricity, Tramway, and Tunnel Authority (IETT). One of the city’s largest bureaucracies, the IETT provided jobs at the time for many up-and-coming politicians including a young Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
During 1979, the economy grew worse. In January 1980, in order to secure IMF loans, the right-wing government announced a series of reforms devised by the economist Turgut Özal. These reforms drastically devalued the lira and took steps to open up the Turkish economy. Highly unpopular, these reforms did nothing to calm Turkish politics. Protests continued and violence rose—in the first nine months of 1980, over 1,928 people were killed. Among these was Gün Sazak, a former member of parliament and the deputy leader of the powerful National Action Party. His death set off a spree of retaliatory killings, including Sarıgül’s new father-in-law, Abdurrahman Köksaloğlu. On an evening in mid-July, gunmen entered his Şişli tire store and shot him in his office. He died in surgery that night.
Within two months, under the leadership of General Evren, the army staged a coup; parties were closed and leaders were arrested; unions were closed; student radicals were arrested; universities and municipalities were purged; and Turks were confronted with a radically different political reality.
All Turks found it necessary to navigate their way through the repression of the coup years. Some were relieved that the military had stepped in; others were demoralized. Some challenged the military, others worked with it, and others just tried to keep their head down. Sarıgül seems to have fit this latter category. In the days following the coup, he explains:
The military government rolled over the society…Many of my friends at IETT entered Metris prison…How could I stay in a place where such injustice was being done! If I had worked with the military, my thoughts, my principals—I would be going against a decade of my own struggles…I took my compensation and left. “Somehow I’ll pass three or four months with this compensation, perhaps I’ll do odd jobs. Also I’ll do my military service,” I said. At that time, university students were able to do a shorter military service. Anyhow, [recruits] weren’t doing municipal work—or rather, there wasn’t any difference between the city and the army now! For me this was an opportunity. I did my service in Tokat.
Sitting out the first year of the coup in Tokat allowed Sarıgül to avoid the initial rearranging of municipal structures. Upon finishing his service, he returned to Istanbul to pursue private business. His deceased father-in-law had run a tire shop in Şişli, and Sarıgül followed suit by opening an auto-garage. While the military busied itself with implementing the Özal economic reforms and drawing up a new constitution—as well as altering numerous social institutions in Turkey, ranging from the education system to the labor movement—Sarıgül focused on making money and maintaining his political ties.
When Özal and the military parted ways in 1982, Özal determined to establish his own party and contest the 1983 elections. The party he formed, the Motherland Party (ANAP), was a catchall for the center-right, united largely by its dislike for the military. The twenty-five-year-old Sarıgül was among the party activists Özal hoped to lure into his coalition. But on the advice of his mentor, Aytekin Kotil, he refused Özal’s offer. Sarıgül has tried to make this part of the story of his allegiance to social democracy:
I have also changed parties—and for this I was criticized a lot—but my basic stance never changed. There’s the CHP, there’s the Democratic Left Party (DSP)…My stance is the social democrat stance…I’m a man like that.
But in many ways, Sarıgül’s behavior did not conform with the ideal of a social democrat. Between 1980 and 1987, his business interests expanded rapidly; he opened new stores in both Şişli and Laleli, and he grew close with Aydın Doğan, the city’s richest car dealer and owner of one of Turkey’s most important newspapers. Throughout the course of his memoirs, Sarıgül gives similar reminders of his close ties with businessmen. On rare occasions, the name-dropping is tied to a concrete public good that emerged from the acquaintance, but more often the name, once dropped, simply hangs there.
Given that he is telling these stories in the context of a campaign memoir, an anecdote like the following is puzzling:
During summer vacation[s], I moved sofas and chairs for a furniture studio in Şişli…[The company] had fashion shows outside Istanbul. I was taken to a show in Izmir. The show’s top model was Başak Güsöy. At the time she was Turkey’s favorite model. For a moment, I found myself in the middle of a most colorful life…And then show ended; Başak Güsöy left; a very rich kid in a Mercedes took her and went. That guy in the Mercedes is now among my closest friends, Satvet Çiftçi, but at that time, I looked at him going away with envy…I found myself murmuring Cem Karaca’s song, “Apprentice Repairman”: You are a worker, you’ll stay a worker.
Such a tale both laments class differences in the country and brushes them aside by pointing out that Sarıgül has overcome them. But the sort of social order he supports is unclear: at times he paints something verging on an up-by-your-bootstraps fable for the reader, yet this is undercut by a series of stories where his rise is dependent on connections and patronage. He rarely suggests structural reforms to any social institution—his most passionate calls to action are reserved for the rules governing CHP primary elections. By contrast, when the issue comes to the rights of workers, he gives this anecdote from his days in the Youth Arm:
Wherever there might be an event, we were there…A strike? Right away we were at the worker’s side…A boycott? Immediately we were at the student’s side…
One day our representative Abdurrahman Köksaloğlu invited me to his side. “Come,” he said and gave me a lesson I will never forget in my life: “I congratulate you that you’re supporting the strike…but what is the solution? How will the matter be resolved? When you support a strike, you are only looking from one side, from the workers’ side. The issue must also be viewed from the employers’ side…as the Youth Arm president, you are representing the party…Look at the situation and ask ‘How can I reconcile the workers and the employers?’…Think of a way for both sides to not to lose.”
From that day, I have thought like this; not to aggravate the fight, but to be on the side of reconciliation.
Such a position is reassuring for those who see society as an organic whole, each group with its own role to play and own lot in life to accept—but it is easy to imagine a conservative Turkish politician saying precisely the same words.
[Part two of this article can be found here.]
 For a video of the modern village, see: “Erzincan İliç Güngören(GÖSKE)Köyü,” YouTube, Accessed: 1/3/14.
 For good accounts of the People’s Rooms and Houses, see Kemal H. Karpat, The People’s Houses in Turkey: Establishment and Growth, 17 (1/2), Winter-Spring, 1963 and M. Asım Karaömerlioğlu, “The People’s Houses and the Cult of the Peasant in Turkey,” Middle Eastern Studies, 34(4), October 1998. For details about the CHP’s Youth Arm, see Asil Kaya, Türk Siyasi Tarihi’nde CHP’nin Gençlik Kolları, Unpublished Thesis, Dokuz Eylül Üniversitesi, 2010. Accessed: 4/1//14.
 Cahit Kayra, ’38 kusgi: Anilar, Istanbul: Is Bank Kultur Yayinlari, 2002, pp. 372-3.
 For more information about Deniz Baykal, see “Deniz Baykal Belgeseli,” YouTube, Accessed 1/5/14.
 A typical example was Ali Topuz, a party powerbroker from Istanbul, known for his dexterity at controlling the party rules committee—a skill dubbed “hocus pocus” by his enemies. Though he dismissed Baykal first attempt as “only a tactic in a struggle for more internal party power,” he soon came to lament Ecevit had slowly “slipped into one-man rule.” [Both quotes from Ali Topuz, Ali Topuz Anlatıyor-2: Düzeni Değiştirmek (1972-1980), Istanbul: Doğan Kitap, 2011, p. 130 and 406, respectively].
 A few more concrete examples. War: in 1974, Turkey had successfully halted a Greek invasion of Cyprus (and ultimately seized a great deal of agricultural land not previously controlled by the island’s Turkish minority). American influence: upon coming to power in 1972, Ecevit had bowed to American wishes and banned Turkey’s profitable opium industry. More generally, Turkey remained America’s closest ally in the region at this point. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, the presence of missiles in Turkey had made the country a target for nuclear annihilation without its citizens ever being asked. Economic Crisis: left and right alike, Turkish politicians were unwilling to maintain realistic economic conditions, preferring instead to manipulate the currency to prop up domestic producers in the short-term while barreling towards uncompetitiveness and deficits in the longer-term.
 Asil Kaya, p. 259.
 See Bruce Hoffman and Sabri Sayari, “Urbanization and Insurgency: The Turkish Case, 1976-80.” RAND, 1991. Accessed 6/12/13.
 Mustafa Sarıgül, Ne Bir Eksik Ne Bir Fazla, Istanbul: Remzi Kitabevi, 2013, p. 66. The translations are mine.
 Ahmet İsvan, Başkent Gölgesince İstanbul, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2002, pp. 258-75. According to İsvan, Ali Topuz’s Istanbul clique wanted even stronger control of the city’s delegation and therefore ran Kotil against him. Ecevit did not offer him support because he didn’t want to take sides in the dispute.
 “Tüm bilinmeyenleriyle Mustafa Sarıgül portresi,” OdaTv, 2/21/13. Accessed 1/5/14. Or, in English, Rasim Ozan Kutahyali, “Turkey’s left, unseat Erdogan?” Al-Monitor, 11/20/13. Accessed 1/5/14.
 Sarıgül, p. 102.
 Sabri Sayari, “Political Violence and Terrorism in Turkey, 1976–80: A Retrospective Analysis,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 22(2), p. 202.
 Seraçeddin Zıddıoğlu, “CHP İstanbul Milletvekili Köksaloğlu öldürüldü,” Milliyet, 7/16/80, p. 10.
 Sarıgül, p. 110.
 For a more detailed account, read section V of Reuben Silverman, “Development Under Military Rule: Turkey in the 1980s.” Accessed: 1/13/14.
 Sarıgül, p. 115.
 Sarıgül, p. 59
 Sarıgül, p. 125 and 136.
 Sarıgül, p. 83.
[An earlier version of this article was published on the author’s blog; it can be found here. Part two of this article can be found here; part three can be found here.]