ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Over the next 17 months, Turkey will see three elections: local and presidential elections this year, followed by parliamentary voting next year. With Turkey's political landscape unsettled by scandals and growing voter discontent, even the local elections are drawing intense interest and that is especially true in Istanbul. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, the secular opposition sees the mayor's race there as its best chance in a decade of scoring a win over the dominant ruling party.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The Istanbul mayor's job is considered a path to higher office. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used to be mayor here. Some say he still is in all but name. Certainly, the current mayor, Kadir Topbas, gets only modest attention. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, is the first party with roots in political Islam to truly control the levers of power in Turkey, from the national to the local level.
But after a corruption scandal erupted in December, forcing cabinet ministers to resign and prompting a purge of police and prosecutors by an embattled government, Turkey's long dormant secular opposition thinks it may be time for a comeback.
The CHP, or Republican People's Party, is as old as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's modern Turkish Republic. But seniority not being a big selling point in political campaigns these days, the CHP is focusing less on its 65-year-old leader and more on the somewhat younger and more charismatic candidate for mayor of Istanbul, Mustafa Sarigul. Sarigul thrilled a sports arena full of supporters recently with the only message they want to hear. This time, they have a real shot at winning.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MUSTAFA SARIGUL: (Through Translator) Don't worry, my friends. Stay calm. They are the setting sun and we are the rising sun.
KENYON: At a nearby coffee stand, 18-year-old Burcu Atakan(ph) says Sarigul won over voters off all stripes in his current job - running the city's bustling Sisli district - and his popularity combined with dismay over the city's harsh crackdown on protesters this summer in Gezi Park will help the opposition break through at last.
BURCU ATAKAN: (Through Translator) After the Gezi protests, everyone realized that the AKP stands for a polarized society. And more people have joined the opposition, so there's real excitement about the chances of winning.
SIEGEL: But the fundamentals of Turkish politics still favor the ruling party. Political scientist Ersin Kalaycioglu at Sabanci University says there's been a consistent rightward shift in Turkey's electorate ever since the end of the Cold War. He recalls a 2011 survey asking voters to place themselves on the political spectrum.
ERSIN KALAYCIOGLU: Approximately 35 percent of the people place themselves almost right where AKP happen to be, whereas about 8 percent of the people place themselves where CHP are. So CHP has a very shallow support.
KENYON: On the other hand, last summer's Gezi Park protests have some analysts speaking about a new political group: a minority but a vocal one, focusing on free speech, civil liberties and the environment. That movement, coupled with welling resentment at the government's increasingly autocratic style, might shift enough votes to make the Istanbul mayor's race very tight.
One wild card is the feud within the religious community, between Erdogan's supporters and the followers of moderate imam Fethullah Gulen. Mustafa Yesil, head of the Gulen-linked Journalist and Writers Foundation, says Gulen never tells his followers how to vote. He adds, however, that their recent disappointment with the ruling party might show up in the voting booth.
MUSTAFA YESIL: (Through Translator) If AKP does not restore back to democratic settings, they might lose more votes.
KENYON: That's why these local elections on March 30th will give Turks an important update on the political health of the AKP after more than a decade in power. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.