Kadir Topbas, Mayor of Istanbul

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Kadir Topbas
Mayor of Istanbul
By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

5 April 2009: Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents, an historic bridge between Europe and Asia. Its city leader, Kadir Topbas, also embodies the on-going tensions in Turkish society between cosmopolitan secularism and the recent tendency towards Islamism, amid national debate around the country’s destiny. An architect by training, recently he was elected co-president of the United Cities and Local Governments organisation. The mayor has been short-listed for the 2008 World Mayor Award.

Topbas was born in 1945 in the Black Sea province of Artvin (which borders Georgia), moving with his family to Istanbul a year later. He graduated from the Marmara University Faculty of Theology in 1972 and Mimar Sinan University’s Department of Architecture in 1974. He then obtained a PhD in architectural history at Istanbul University (for the thesis ‘Hidiv Kasrı and its place in Bosphorus civilian architecture’), going on to work as a freelance architect for several years. Between 1994 and 1998, he served as architectural adviser to Istanbul Mayor (and now Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, overseeing the restoration of a number of historic buildings in the city and was also appointed to act as deputy director of the Ministry of Culture’s Heritage Protection and Monuments committee during this time.

Before becoming Istanbul mayor in 2004, Topbas attempted a political career by twice standing for the national parliament (in his place of birth), on the first occasion for the National Salvation Party and then for its successor, the Welfare Party. Both parties were eventually banned by the Turkish secular state under the constitutional provisions put in place to guard against the rise of Islamist parties, with the ban being upheld by the European Court of Human Rights recently. Topbas’ predecessor (and former employer) Recep Tayyip Erdogan was convicted and imprisoned for inciting religious hatred in 1998 for reciting a provocative Islamic prayer and criticising secularist attitudes to a large crowd while serving as mayor. Following the ban on the Welfare Party and its successor, the Virtue Party, Erdogan formed the conservative Justice and Development Party in 2001 from the remnants of his moderate faction, before going on to become Prime Minister in 2003. While religious conservatives in Turkey continue to chide secularists for the continued presence of constitutional tenets which they view as against freedom of religion and religious expression, Erdogan’s government has pursued a number of cases against writers and artists charged with “insulting Turkishness”, most notably Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk.

Following his stint as Istanbul’s architectural adviser, Topbas was elected as the Virtue Party’s candidate for mayor of the Beyoglu district of the city in 1999. Situated on the ‘European’ side of the city (Rumelia) bisected by the Bosporus strait, Beyoglu is the cultural district characterised by 19th century European architecture and more recently built nightclubs, something of a metaphor for the on-going struggle for secularist values and the debate over membership of the European Union. Under the auspices of his ‘Beautiful Beyoglu’ masterplan, Topbas enacted a number of urban improvement schemes and personally led on the design aspects.

Following the end of military rule in 1984, Istanbul’s city leadership was directly elected. Istanbul forms the Greater Istanbul municipality (which is also one of Turkey’s 81 provinces), headed by the metropolitan mayor and the metropolitan council (consisting of 31 district mayors and one fifth of district councillors). Topbas’ predecessor Ali Murfit Gurtana was initially appointed to serve as mayor following the imprisonment of Erdogan and obtained an elected term in 1999 but chose not to stand again, instead establishing an unsuccessful electoral movement at national level. Topbas was first elected in the 2004 elections for the mayoralty of Greater Istanbul on behalf of the governing Justice and Development Party. He received a second term in the 2009 local elections, albeit having faced a close challenge from a left of centre opponent.

Mayor Topbas is married with three children. In 2007 he became co-president of the United Cities and Local Governments organisation.

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