Istanbul's Imamoglu has a plan

Having spent just seventeen days in the job, Ekrem Imamoglu from the Republican Peopleʹs Party wants to win back the office of Mayor of Istanbul. Who is this man – and why is his potential re-election so significant for Turkeyʹs future? By Marian Brehmer

By Marian Brehmer

The words "Itʹll all be fine", set to Anatolian pop beats, come from the rolling loudspeakers. The car speeds past and the rhythmic song fades away as quickly as it appeared. You can still just about hear the chorus, which features the name "Imamoglu" (literally: "son of the Imam"), the mayoral candidate representing Turkeyʹs main opposition party, the CHP.

This was the background music to this yearʹs Ramadan. Residents of Istanbul are used to being bombarded with election songs at regular intervals. Before every election – most recently, during the 2018 presidential campaign – the political camps try to outdo each other by producing ever more catchy songs. The ruling AKP dominated, with its Erdogan anthem based on a central Asian battle song. But for the last few months, all you hear in Istanbul is the upbeat music of Imamogluʹs Republican Peopleʹs Party.

If it were up to the CHP, the song wouldnʹt even be playing now. What has happened? There were local elections in Turkey on 31 March. In many of the countryʹs provinces, especially in central and eastern Anatolia, the ruling partyʹs candidates swept the board. But in the coastal regions, as expected, the CHP came out on top. And on election night, the three large Turkish cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul initially seemed to be firmly in the hands of the opposition, for the first time in more than 25 years.

A political turning point?

Some people started proclaiming a political turning point as soon as the provisional results of the election were made public – though many see Turkeyʹs fate mapped out in the results of the vote in the three major cities. Despite a swift challenge to the result by the AKP, Ekrem Imamoglu was officially declared the victor in Istanbulʹs mayoral election in mid-April. The opposition candidateʹs triumph, and the electoral commissionʹs confirmation of the victory despite fierce resistance from the countryʹs current rulers, was taken by the international community as a sign that things were not looking too bad for Turkish democracy.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Den Bogen überspannt: Selbst viele der eingefleischten AKP-Unterstützer sehen sich nach dem schlechten Verlierertum der Regierungspartei in ihrem Sinn für Fairness verletzt. Tatsächlich könnte sich Erdoğan mit dem Pochen auf eine Neuwahl verzockt haben: Umfragen sagen für İmamoğlu momentan einen weitaus deutlicheren Vorsprung voraus, als das umstrittene Wahlergebnis vom 31. März hervorgebracht hatte.

But it was also clear that the election had been won by a very narrow margin: according to official figures, Imamoglu had a lead of just 13,729 votes, which is vanishingly small in a city of around 15 million people. Erdogan and Binali Yildirim, the last Turkish prime minister and now the AKPʹs candidate for mayor of Istanbul, continued to challenge the election result. Their party suspected irregularities – and in fact, re-counts have seen the CHPʹs vote share reduced considerably in some areas of the city.

The tensions around the results of the Istanbul election are symptomatic of Turkeyʹs current division into two camps of roughly equal strength. The major cities, home to millions of people who have moved there from every region of the country, are often viewed as miniature versions of the nation as a whole.  And this is another reason the AKP fears Imamoglu: they are afraid of a charismatic man being promoted on the glittering stage of Istanbul, and potentially becoming a dangerous opposition candidate challenging Erdogan in 2023. History could repeat itself here – only this time, for the other side. Erdogan himself once raised his profile as mayor of Istanbul, before going on to become the most powerful man in Turkey.

Erdogan also sees a threat to his favourite building project in Istanbul, which may well be scrapped following an election victory by the opposition. In addition to the third bridge over the Bosphorus and the mega airport on the Black Sea – both very controversial undertakings – there will, if the AKPʹs plans are followed, soon be a fifty-kilometre long canal, which people are calling the "second Bosphorus". The AKP project, which Erdogan says will create thousands of new jobs, has been strongly criticised by environmental groups and city planners for years. 

A loss of social conscience

Ultimately, Imamogluʹs election victory was annulled by the electoral commission after he had spent just 17 days in office. The decision provoked anger in Istanbul, particularly among young people, who saw their hopes of a fresh political direction dashed. In a hail of international criticism, with the EU demanding an explanation, the former AKP prime minister and Erdogan ally Ahmet Davutoglu has also voiced criticism on Twitter: "The greatest loss for a political movement is not losing elections, but the loss of moral superiority and social conscience."

In the days after the local elections, the source of much of Imamogluʹs popularity was in evidence. Many Istanbul residents were excited by his constructive optimism; he didnʹt waste a minute on furious ripostes, as people are used to seeing from the Turkish president, for example. Instead, in keeping with the spirit of Ramadan, he called on the people of Istanbul to come together, and presented himself as a rational, calm candidate – qualities that are extremely well received in the current polarised climate of Turkish politics.

But who is Imamoglu? A native of Trabzon, he comes from the Black Sea region just as Erdogan does, is also a keen footballer, and, following a degree in business, he worked in the building industry. In 2009, the 49-year-old entered local politics, and in 2014 – still a relative newcomer to politics – he was elected district mayor of Beylikduzu, an area in the south east of Istanbul. Besides his good record in Beylikduzu, for many people Imamogluʹs appeal lies in his thoughtful and polite manner.

Social justice as a trademark

A speech by Imamoglu after he was removed from office in mid-May caused a furore: he spoke exclusively about social justice, and the rampant misuse of money and power by the elites. As temporary mayor, Imamoglu experienced (if only for a short while) the huge sums of money and disproportionate ostentation that was made available to him as holder of that office. "On 23 June, the system of extravagance will come to an end, and everything will be fine again," Imamoglu declared to the assembled press. His statement was also a clear objection to the huge, expensive building projects of the AKP.

Judging by the current mood in Istanbul society, many of the cityʹs residents are placing great significance on the second election, and one can expect a high turnout. The date, it is rumoured in Turkey, was chosen by the AKP specifically because it falls in a week when members of the CHP-voting demographics traditionally go on holiday to the coast. They are hoping that many voters will be in Bodrum, Antalya or Alanya rather than Istanbul.

The reactions from the Aegean coast – a traditional CHP heartland – came swiftly. The town council of Datca, for instance, a beach resort popular with people from Istanbul, announced the decision to close all the beaches on 23 June with the following words: "Due to expected simultaneous sand and snow storms, all our beaches are closed on 23 June! But we welcome you all on the 24th. Dear people of Istanbul, please go to the ballot boxes for your future."

In fact, Erdoganʹs insistence on a new election may not have paid off: polls currently predict a much clearer lead for Imamoglu than he had in the disputed results of 31 March. This is also due to long-time non-voters intending to vote for the CHP candidate following Imamogluʹs removal from office – for the sake of justice, as many say. Even many die-hard AKP supporters find their sense of fairness affronted by the governing party being such bad losers. This time, you often hear people say, the AKP has gone too far.

Marian Brehmer

© 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin