* Local elections first test for Erdogan since protests
* Corruption scandal, economy weighing on government
* Opposition hopes to make inroads in Istanbul, Ankara
* Secularist opposition party seeks wider appeal
By Nick Tattersall and Asli Kandemir
ISTANBUL, Jan 30 Immaculately coiffed with a
camera-ready smile, Mustafa Sarigul's composure cracks a little
as his campaign bus swings towards Istanbul's old city walls.
Two months before elections which could reshape Turkey's
political landscape, the main opposition candidate for mayor of
its biggest city is taking the fight to a bastion of Prime
Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party.
At stake is much more than just local politics, and
Sarigul's secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) is hoping
for a breakthrough in places like the conservative district of
Fatih in Istanbul's historic heart.
"We haven't won Fatih for the last 20 years," said Oguz Kaan
Salici, the CHP head in Istanbul and one of Sarigul's campaign
The municipal elections on March 30 will be the first
concrete test of Erdogan's popularity since street protests
swept Istanbul and other cities last summer, and a corruption
scandal last month which forced the resignation of three
ministers and opened a feud with an influential Islamic cleric.
His problems have been compounded by a dive in the lira
currency, prompting a big emergency interest rate rise this week
which is likely to dent economic growth just as Turks vote,
tarnishing a reputation for strong financial management.
Istanbul will be a bellwether of whether the turbulence has
damaged Erdogan - Turkey's most powerful leader since Mustafa
Kemal Ataturk founded the modern republic on the ashes of the
Ottoman Empire just over 90 years ago - and if so, by how much.
Good AK Party showings in Istanbul, the capital Ankara and
Izmir on the Aegean coast - a stronghold of the CHP - could
encourage Erdogan to run for president five months later. AKP
officials are targeting 40 percent of the municipal vote, a
similar level to the last elections in 2009.
But a drubbing could prompt him to change AK Party rules and
stand instead for a fourth term as prime minister. This, Erdogan
could declare, would be necessary to save the party he founded,
a coalition of conservative religious, centre-right and
nationalist elements once accused of endangering Turkey's
Erdogan's feud with U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah
Gulen, who he sees as behind the corruption investigation
shaking his government, has damaged the reputation of both, but
the AK Party would still win an election if one were called this
weekend, a survey showed on Thursday.
The significance of the battle for Istanbul - capital of
four empires over the ages and the economic and cultural heart
of modern Turkey - is not lost on Erdogan, who served as its
mayor and keeps offices in former Ottoman palaces on the shores
of the Bosphorus.
Addressing throngs of AK Party supporters a short distance
away as Sarigul arrived in Fatih, Erdogan evoked the 15th
century conquest of the city - then called Constantinople and
under Christian rule - by Muslim Ottomans, in remarks tinged
with religious fervour.
"Istanbul is not just a city ... it is the world's pearl,
the mother of all cities ... It is not a melting pot for
civilisations, it is a city that builds civilisations," he said,
a white AK Party scarf draped around his neck.
"We inherited the legacy of a march that has continued for
centuries ... Those who do not understand the conquest and the
conqueror cannot serve Istanbul," he said to rapturous cheers.
Erdogan's AK Party has transformed Turkey over the past
decade, ending the period of unstable coalition governments of
the 1990s, taming a military that toppled four administrations
in the second half of the 20th century, and overseeing a
tripling in Turks' nominal wealth.
It has won a growing share of the vote in three successive
national elections, trouncing opposition parties too closely
wedded to their own segments of Turkish society to mount an
effective challenge in all but a handful of regions.
Virtually the whole electoral map - apart from the Aegean
coast, the mainly Kurdish southeast and a small region on the
European continent west of Istanbul - is under AK Party rule.
But a sense of fatigue is growing, particularly in
Western-facing cities such as Istanbul. Many Turks there regard
Erdogan's style as pious hectoring and believe he is interfering
in their private lives, from trying to impose his hostile views
on smoking and alcohol to offering unwanted advice on how many
children women should have. Such feelings had been building up
long before last summer's demonstrations.
The protests, which drew a heavy-handed police response,
brought together groups ranging from anti-capitalist Muslims and
gay rights activists to doctors and lawyers. The political
opposition may struggle to achieve this diversity at a national
level, but Sarigul hopes it could help him in Istanbul.
"There are no 'others' to me. I have always been respectful
to all faiths and always defended a secularism that respects
everyone," Sarigul told Reuters, eager to demonstrate his party
could belie its image as a closed set for the secular elite.
"The CHP is embracing all people, all segments of society,"
he said, his outing to Fatih on a misty Sunday afternoon
emphasising the point.
The CHP's choice of candidate for the district, Sabri
Erbakan, aims to appeal to more conservative voters. He is a
nephew of former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, the father of
Islamist politics in modern Turkey and of the "Milli Gorus"
movement, which seeks to strengthen Islamic values in public
life and laid the foundations for the AK Party.
"Fatih is a conservative neighbourhood ... I think my
surname is an advantage," Erbakan said, shortly before climbing
onto the roof of the campaign bus to be formally presented in a
square packed with several thousand supporters.
"I think we should be in unity against recent political
developments, that's why I'm here," said the architect and
former civil servant, who said his late uncle would have
approved. "I will never forget him saying 'Mustafa Bey (Sarigul)
is also a son of this country, of course you can serve him'."
Erbakan is in a closely-watched race. The CHP won 30 percent
of the vote in Fatih at the last election in 2009, compared with
43 percent for the AKP and 13 percent for the Saadet Party, both
of them rooted in Milli Gorus ideology.
In a sign of how seriously Erdogan is taking the battle with
Sarigul, he used a rally of AK Party faithful in an Istanbul
sports stadium to revive old accusations of corruption against
the man who could change his own political destiny.
"This is not electronic mail. This is original, original,"
Erdogan said, brandishing a file labelled "allegations", and
showing an enlarged copy of what he said was a CHP report into
Sarigul's alleged illegal activities, as the crowd booed.
Sarigul rejects the allegations, which date back several
years, as "dishonourable propaganda" and said they were all
investigated and dismissed at the time.
Suggestions that followers of Fethullah Gulen could support
Sarigul's bid have done little to calm Erdogan's nerves. The
prime minister already sees the cleric, whose "Hizmet" (Service)
movement exercises deep if covert influence in the police and
judiciary, as being behind the corruption scandal he views as a
plot to unseat him.
Sarigul declined to be drawn on whether he might benefit
from Hizmet support, saying simply that he "enjoys good
relations with all communities".
In a political landscape so dominated by one man, Erdogan
may also see in Sarigul a charisma that could one day rival his
own. The two men appear cut from the same cloth, speaking in
crowd-pleasing sound bites and with a sharp eye for a media
They also share a similar temperament, quick to anger and
eager to control. As Sarigul's campaign bus deviated from the
planned route and momentarily lost the convoy, the air turned
blue, as he cursed and hammered the glass.
"They don't have to love us ... the more important thing is
the attention we receive," the CHP's Salici said, as Sarigul's
well-practised grin quickly returned for Fatih's residents, some
waving back and cheering, others seemingly bemused as his
convoy, horns blaring, snaked its way through the traffic.
(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul; Writing
by Nick Tattersall; editing by David Stamp)