Ekrem Imamoglu, the first opposition candidate to beat the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul for 25 years, spent just 17 days as mayor before his mandate was revoked by Turkey’s election board.
With a re-rerun scheduled for June 23, supporters say they are confident he can repeat his startling election win – and even if thwarted, will cement his presence as a serious opposition figurehead.
Istanbul is the largest, wealthiest city in Turkey, with 16 million people and an annual budget of four billion US dollars.
The country’s president and AKP leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was mayor between 1994 and 1998. That post launched his own national career, and he has often said that the party which controls Istanbul controls Turkey as well. Analysts believe that this was a contributing factor why the AKP was unwilling to admit defeat and asked for the rerun, citing irregularities in the appointment of polling station officials.
Imamoglu, of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), ran a calm and conciliatory campaign ahead of the March 31 vote, and has already announced that he intends to continue this path. He has repeatedly stressed that he intended to be the mayor of all the city’s citizens and was ready to embrace everyone, supporters and opponents alike.
The head of the CHP’s election campaign, advertising specialist Ates Ilyas Bassoy, explained this “radical love” strategy was intended to come in sharp contrast to the AKP’s increasingly harsh rhetoric.
“Radical love means loving both those who love you and those who don’t,” he explained. “We said [in our pre-election campaign] that we would not react to [AKP] provocations, that we would not divide our citizens, but strive to unite them instead. Our goal was not to beat Erdogan’s candidate, but to win against him.”
Bassoy argued that Imamoglu was the perfect candidate to implement this strategy. As a practicing Muslim and a politician with moderate views, Imamoglu had the power to appeal to all segments of Turkish society – the traditional, secular CHP supporters and also conservative Turks who usually vote for AKP but have been disappointed with the direction that party has taken in recent years.
He predicted Imamoglu would win in the re-run as well because “he has a large support base among small business owners, who traditionally vote for AKP.”
Journalist and researcher Rusen Cakir, who is also the editor-in-chief of the independent media platform Medyascope.tv, agreed that Imamoglu’s calm demeanour was a key driver behind his success.
“A person like Imamoglu was able to win because he refused to polarize the citizens of Istanabul,” he continued. “It is quite telling that, after the election results were announced, the majority of those who voted for other parties did not object Imamoglu’s victory. His calmness is his power, and is in a sharp contrast to the government’s aggressive tone and increasing arrogance.”
Imamoglu, 49, was born in the Trabzon province in northern Turkey and grew up in a conservative, religious family. However, he said he was drawn to social democratic values while studying business and administration at the University of Istanbul and eventually joined the CHP.
In the 2014 local elections, he ran as their candidate for Istanbul’s Beylikduzu district, defeating his AKP counterpart. Five years later, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu convinced Imamoglu to run as the mayoral candidate for the city of Istanbul.
As AKP had ruled there for the last quarter of the century, many believed that Imamoglu had been given an impossible task. However, he not only won – albeit by a small margin – but also defeated one of AKP’s most prominent members running, former prime minister Binali Yildirim.
Cakir said that it was possible to draw comparisons between Imamoglu’s experience in Istanbul and that of Erdogan in 1994 when he was first elected mayor.
“Those who controlled the media in the Nineties thought that Erdogan stood no chance, and yet he won,” Cakir said. “But now the table has turned – Erdogan controls the media, but that will not guarantee his party’s victory. If Imamoglu loses on June 23, he will be seen as a bigger victim than Erdogan ever was. With this re-run, Erdogan is creating his own demise.”
Edgar Sar, a founder of the Istanbul Political Research Institute, said an important contributory factor to Imamoglu’s March victory was voter apathy among AKP supporters.
“The ones who didn’t go to the polls in March wanted not only to punish the AKP, but also to indirectly support Imamoglu,” he explained. “They were not ready to vote for CHP yet, so they couldn’t just go to the polls and cast their vote for Imamoglu. But even their abstinence helped him win.”
Sar said that cancelling the results of the March elections had not only outraged the opposition and the international community, but also caused discomfort among AKP grassroot supporters too.
This will all play in Imamoglu’s favour, he continued, adding, “If Imamoglu stays on the same path and if his party doesn’t make any big mistakes, his transformative power on society will incrementally grow, even if he loses on June 23.”