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Politician Ekrem Imamoglu was far from being a household name in Turkey before the local elections on 31 March 2019. That changed almost overnight. Although the polls did not expect him to win, initial results had him taking first place in the mayoral elections in Istanbul then re-elected in a renewed election on 23 June 2019.
With nearly one in four Turks living in that city, the country’s largest settlement and its economic and industrial powerhouse, the mayoral post, which commands a budget of nearly $6 billion, is one of the most important prizes in Turkish politicss.
Istanbul has been under the firm political control of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKPl) since 1994. Indeed, Erdogan was the city’s mayor during the 1990s, where he laid the foundations for his takeover of Turkish politics.
Imamoglu was up against Binali Yildirim, the former prime minister whose position was erased when Erdogan moved Turkey to a presidential system. The Istanbul mayorship was presumably supposed to be Yildirim’s consolation prize.
Despite being up against one of most recognizable figures in Turkish politics who has the full backing of the president, Imamoglu has proved himself post-election, refusing to accept Ankara’s decision not to concede the election. Two weeks on, the city effectively has two mayors, with both claiming their right to the mayoral seat on Twitter and in the press, with the AKP even going so far as to paste victory posters around the city.
Following in Erdogan’s shoes?
Both Imamoglu and Erdogan were born and raised in humble, conservative families. Aside from these shared roots and a love of football, the two have relatively little in common. That said, Imamoglu is far from the staunch Kemalist-secularist persona that many associate with the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the official opposition that was established by the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Imamoglu, whose name literally translates as ‘son of the Imam’, has cultivated an image of someone who embraces his religious side. A self-described pious ‘social democrat’, it is easy to see his appeal for the average Turk, after the closely fought presidential election campaign in 2018 when opposition candidate Muharrem Ince drew unexpected attention and support with his openness about his own religiosity – a new trait for CHP politicians. Indeed, Imamoglu credited the diverse views in his own family as good preparation for reaching out to new voters in his political career.
Imamoglu studied business at Istanbul University, one of the country’s top centres of learning, before joining his family’s construction business. He began his career in local politics in 2009, winning the race for the middle-class Istanbul district of Beylikduzu, which had been ruled by the AKP for ten years. He was re-elected in 2014 and still holds the post today.
Soft-spoken and bookish, he has distanced himself from claims by Erdogan that there were multiple irregularities in the Istanbul mayoral votess . This softer stance may even have been part of his electoral strategy, as he cast discretion as an advantage over a well-known political figure like Yildirim.
However, his campaign was pitched on an uneven playing field. Almost all of the country’s media is now state-owned or state-aligned, and opposition candidates appear to have been denied as much coverage as candidates from the AKP and its MHP coalition partner. One paper even cast Imamoglu’s apparent win as a ‘coup via elections’, adding (without any evidence) that figures behind the 2016 coup attempt were involved in his campaign.
Imamoglu mimicked other successful political campaigns of recent years, including Barack Obama in 2008, Donald Trump in 2016 and Brexit, relying on social media to fuel his victory.
Even so, he made a point of emphasizing that word of mouth was his ‘biggest weapon’, the message being that this type of voter recommendation relied on his reputation. Unlike many Turkish politicians, Imamoglu does not have a moustache – a typical marker of masculinity. Instead, he promoted his clean-cut reputation and competence as an administrator, untarnished by ideological ties.
Pragmatism over posturing
This approach won him favour among voters, who were not polarized by his leadership. Indeed, in an era of economic mismanagement and the use of mega-infrastructure projects as a salve for economic woes, Imamoglu ran his campaign – the slogan of which was ‘If there is Imamoglu, there is a solution’ – with his trademark pragmatism.
He also pushed his personal touch, memorably winning round an ardent AKP supporter in the Grand Bazaar who initially refused to shake his hand and attending a variety of local meetings to discuss quotidian issues with voters.
As the average Turk struggles with the effects of the lira’s depreciation for the first time in years – so much so that the government began subsidising vegetables – this apparently genuine concern for voters’ issues undoubtedly won him respect and support. This also turned on its head old critiques of the CHP as being aloof and disconnected from the average Turk, seemingly drawing in support from new voters and blurring traditional electoral divides.
Imamoglu also stood out for his reaction to the furore around the contested mayoral result. He spent much of election night giving press conferences, in stark contrast to the state media agency which turned off its vote-counting boards when it seemed the AKP would lose. Similarly, he has maintained a conciliatory tone in many of his media appearances since, calling on the results to be respected but ultimately reaching across the political divide and declaring that he will be the ‘mayor for all’.
When the election dust finally settles, the challenge facing Imamoglu will be to follow through on his campaign promises. But before he can attempt that, he has to overcome an arguably more difficult challenge: being confirmed as mayor despite AKP opposition.