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Cablegate: In Istanbul Elections, Akp Sets Its Sights On A

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DE RUEHIT #0590/01 3291336
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 241336Z NOV 08
FM AMCONSUL ISTANBUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 8616
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UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 ISTANBUL 000590

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS:
PGOV, PHUM, PREL, OSCE, TU
SUBJECT: IN ISTANBUL ELECTIONS, AKP SETS ITS SIGHTS ON A
CHP STRONGHOLD

REF: ANKARA 1993

1. Summary. Besiktas, one of Istanbul's richest and most
secular districts, has long been a stronghold of Turkey's
secular Republican People's Party (CHP). In both the 2004
local elections and the 2007 parliamentary elections Turkey's
ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) never got above 20
percent of the district's vote. Intending to make inroads,
AKP has appointed Bulent Gokcen, a rising young star of the
party, as its district chair. In a recent interview, Gokcen
claimed that, with a bit of luck, in the March 2009 local
elections AKP could win the district, and set forth in detail
how he intends to do so. We have our doubts. End Summary.

---------------------------
AKP's New Focus on Besiktas
---------------------------
2. The city of Istanbul consists of 39 districts, 33 of
which have their own mayor and district council. (The
remaining six districts have been recently created and will
select their first representatives in the March, 2009 local
elections.) Istanbul politics have been dominated by AKP for
over a decade, since the time that prime minister Tayyip
Erdogan was mayor. Currently, 27 of the 33 pre-existing
districts have mayors from AKP, four from CHP, and 1 from the
Motherland Party. The mayor of one district, Sisli, is
independent, but formerly belonged to CHP.
3. Besiktas, located directly south of the district in which
the Consulate General is located, is one of Istanbul's
smallest districts, with a population of about 200,000
(including the Consul General and many Consulate families).
It is also one of Istanbul's prime commercial locations, and
during the day some 3 million people commute to work in its
many high rise office buildings, reminiscent of New York
City. Indeed, Besiktas is a sister city to Brooklyn, and was
visited by Brooklyn's mayor earlier this year.
4. Affluent Besiktas has long been a stronghold of CHP.
Neither in the 2004 local elections nor in the 2007
parliamentary elections was AKP able to garner as much as 20
percent of the vote. In fact, in both the 2004 local
elections and the 2007 parliamentary elections AKP received a
smaller percentage of the votes in Besiktas than in any other
district in Istanbul. Last year, Erdogan appointed Bulent
Gokcen, a rising young star of the party, as AKP's Besiktas
district president. Gokcen is 35 years old, a frequent
vacationer in the U.S., and an attorney with an intellectual
property and unfair competition practice. (He said that he
had personally registered AKP's "lightbulb" logo.) He has
been a member of AKP for seven years, and previously held
several different jobs at the provincial level of the party.
Gokcen told us that Erdogan is giving much importance to
elections in the district because of its high profile.
5. We met Gokcen in AKP's year-old district office in the
heart of Besiktas. Of the 20-30 people who work at the
office, only four low-level staffers are paid; all the rest
(including Gokcen) are volunteers. The office includes three
private interview rooms for citizen services (each staffed
all day, serving daily about 100 constituents), two
conference rooms, and a small auditorium. Gokcen said it was
an example of the latest design standard in AKP district
offices.

---------------------------------------
AKP's Two-Pronged Strategy for Besiktas
---------------------------------------

6. We asked Gokcen how AKP, whose base is composed of mostly
poor, conservative and religious voters, could hope to
compete in Besiktas. Gokcen replied that about a quarter of
Besiktas' residents are lower middle class, and many of them
are Alevis. He said that AKP intends to reach out to this
group (ref), and that one of its campaign promises would be
to enact legislation that allows Alevis to build a worship
house (cemevi) -- a promise that, Gokcen claimed, current
Besiktas CHP mayor Ismail Unal once made but never fulfilled.
7. Gokcen further said that AKP would compete by reaching
out beyond its base to convince Besiktas' affluent, secular
voters that AKP does not have a hidden agenda, is not against
Kemalist principles, and is not seeking to implement sharia
law. As evidence of AKP's ability to get this message across,
Gokcen pointed to the 2007 parliamentary elections, in which,
according to his analysis, 64 percent of the people who voted

ISTANBUL 00000590 002 OF 003


for AKP were "modern."
8. Gokcen also noted that in local elections the
personalities of the candidates are very important, since
voters prefer a candidate who resembles them and is
approachable. (Comment: We have heard this from most other
politicians, of various persuasions. End Comment.) He claimed
that the current mayor, Unal, has the reputation of being
remote (Unal's popularity in Besiktas trails that of CHP as a
whole), and said that AKP's "Number 1 promise" will be "a
mayor who is approachable."
9. Gokcen is convinced he possesses these qualities, and
works hard to keep himself in the public eye. He recently
appeared in a three-page spread in the September edition of
"VIP Etiler," a large, glossy magazine devoted to the doings
of Besiktas' well-to-do. Photographed in pressed jeans, an
open neck dress shirt and blue blazer, with his attractive
(and unscarfed) wife and baby by his side, he is the model of
a modern, secular Turk. Indeed, he says he comes from the
"modernist" wing of AKP, and calls himself "both religious
and an Ataturkist." He says that what attracted him to AKP
was its ability to respect tradition while working for a
better future.
------------------------
AKP's Permanent Campaign
------------------------

10. While Gokcen would seem to be the perfect candidate for
mayor, he said that he hasn't decided whether he will seek
that job (which would require him to resign his current
position), and emphasized that the final decision would be up
to Erdogan. When asked when AKP would begin to campaign, he
laughed and said that the party was permanently in campaign
mode. His local organization consists of 12 deputy chairs,
23 neighborhood chairs, who each also have 12 deputies, 488
"ballot box chairs," and 5,000 other volunteers (90% of whom
Gokcen himself has recruited).

11. The duties of the ballot box chairs illustrate the depth
of preparation that AKP puts into its campaigns. Besiktas has
a total of 488 "ballot boxes" (i.e., voting stations). Each
AKP ballot box chair is responsible for campaigning in the
area covered by his or her voting station. Since Besiktas
has 146,000 registered voters, each ballot box chair is
responsible for 300-400 potential voters -- and, armed with a
laptop computer containing voter lists, is expected to
contact each and every one of those voters in advance of the
election. Further, should a supporter not show up on
election day, the chair will contact that person to remind
him or her to vote. Gokcen acknowledged that such a 100
percent "reachout rate" was unusually high, and said that
throughout Istanbul the overall rate was only about 50
percent -- still impressive, given Istanbul's 12 million plus
population.
12. Gokcen, like other AKP officials we have interviewed,
emphasized the centrality to AKP's campaign strategy of such
"reachout" (designed by Erdogan when he was mayor of greater
Istanbul) and also noted CHP's incompetence at it. According
to Gokcen, CHP politicians simply do not have the right
"frequency" to bond with people. Even though he is not a
declared candidate, Gokcen said that in his capacity as
district president he intends to visit with the shops and
residents of every street n Besiktas -- a task that is
already 50 percent omplete. During the month of Ramazan, the
Besikts party served 5,000 iftar meals per day, and helda
concert every other day. Other campaign tactic will include
extensive Internet use and brochur handouts by AKP's army of
volunteers. In formuating his strategies, Gokcen has for
the last ten months had the luxury of monthly poll data,
sine one of his deputies owns a polling firm. (Normally, AKP
polls once every three months.)
--------------------------------
AKP's Expectations for he Future
---------------------------------

1. Gokcen recognizes it is unlikely that AKP can oertake
CHP in the upcoming elections, at least not without some
help: If the Democratic Left Party runs a strong candidate,
he said, it may split the leftist vote with CHP, thus
permitting AKP to squeak in. However, Gokcen's goal in these
elections is not so much to win the mayorship as to develop a
strong party organization for the future, while increasing
AKP's share of the vote by 50 percent, so as to make it a

ISTANBUL 00000590 003 OF 003


significant force on the council (where it currently holds
only 5 of 30 seats).
14. Comment. There does appear to be opportunity for AKP to
improve its position in Besiktas. Sisli -- the district
directly to the south of Besiktas -- has a similar population
and demographic profile, and in the 2007 parliamentary
elections AKP's support in Sisli was 75 percent higher than
in Besiktas -- indicating that poor party organization
adversely affected AKP's results in Besiktas. Thus, Gokcen's
goal of a 50 percent increase in AKP support (to 27 percent)
may not be far-fetched. However, in the 2007 elections CHP
received 53 percent of the vote, and the majority of any
increase in AKP's support is more likely to come at the
expense of the various minor parties on the ballot rather
than CHP. At the end of the day, under any reasonable
scenario AKP will still trail far behind CHP. For Gokcen the
real prize in the upcoming elections is more likely to be the
burnishing of his reputation as an up-and-comer than control
of the Besiktas municipal government. End Comment.
WIENER

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