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Erdogan's challenger? Hope behind the man close to becoming Istanbul's new mayor

Turkey's opposition are pinning their hopes on Ekrem Imamoglu, with recounts in the city underway
Ekrem Imamoglu's success means he is already being touted as a challenger to President Erdogan (Reuters)
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Istanbul

A battle for Istanbul is under way with complaints flying from political parties and a recount after a tight and contested vote in the city’s mayoral elections but amid it all the spotlight has rested on one man: Ekrem Imamoglu. 

Nominated to break the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) control over Turkey’s economic heart, and representing the coalition formed by the secular main opposition Republic People’s Party (CHP) and the right-wing Iyi Party, Imamoglu is a relatively new entrant to Turkey’s politics who could be on the verge of beating a former prime minister to lead Turkey’s largest city. 

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According to initial counting, Imamoglu has a 25,000 vote lead over the AKP’s Binali Yildirim, who was Turkey’s prime minister until the role was abolished in a referendum that switched the country to a presidential system in 2017. 

A significant victory could be his in only the second electoral win in his career, but this depends on the results of a recount in seven Istanbul districts requested by the AKP. The CHP has also objected to results in two other districts.

On Thursday morning, CHP spokesman Faik Oztrak, told Fox TV that a recount was ordered in 21 out of 39 districts of Istanbul for invalid votes. In five districts, a total recount was ordered.

Regardless, the result has put Imamoglu on the political map, with foreign media and political analysts marking him out as someone who might be able to challenge the AKP’s 17-year mandate - though questions remain about his lack of experience and the conservative image he has cultivated. 

The promise he offers, according to CHP’s Istanbul provincial assistant director Ilayda Cagla Kocoglu, who worked closely with Imamoglu during his campaign, is to replicate his successful approach to being mayor of an Istanbul municipality. 

“In Beylikduzu, his former district, he inspected the problems, walking street by street, and sought solutions by himself,” she said, explaining that he plans to do the same for the city as a whole. 

A history with the AKP

The 49-year-old was born in a small Black Sea village in northern Turkey and lived there until he was given a chance to study in Istanbul, at the Istanbul University Business Administration School. He graduated in 1992 and settled in İstanbul’s Beylikduzu, the district he became mayor of in 2014, and started work in his family's construction firm.

A small suburb on the western side of Istanbul, Beylikduzu experienced a population boom after the 1999 Marmara earthquake, which killed thousands and emptied existing neighbourhoods. With the construction of new public transportation lines, its population jumped from 3,000 in the 1990s to 350,000 in 2018.

He was elected head of CHP’s youth wing in 2009 and five years later won his first public election to become a district mayor. 

Imamoglu poses with his mother during the campaign in Istanbul (Reuters)
Imamoglu poses with his mother during the campaign in Istanbul (Reuters)

“Before him, Beylikduzu was under the administration of AKP, like every other newly-founded district. His triumph versus AKP in Beylikduzu was an important factor that granted him the candidacy in the Istanbul race,” said Kocoglu. “But personally I admire his disciplined working style and the way he builds up relationships with people he interacted with.” 

As an example, she said he would always ask how she would get home after long days working and offered to call a taxi. 

“He never forgets details about you and reminds you that he cares,” she said. 

A new Erdogan?

It was the Istanbul mayoralty that propelled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into the spotlight in 1994, opening the door for him to later enter the country’s highest positions of power, where he has remained for almost two decades.

Suggestions are already being made that Imamoglu might himself be able to challenge for the presidency. 

Zeynep Balcioglu, an academic at Boston’s Northeastern University who has done field research on social services in all 39 of Istanbul’s municipalities, especially for the disadvantaged, told MEE that Imamoglu has “political stamina”. 

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“He showed his stamina during the disputed election night by preserving his calm and during the electoral campaign he always displayed a positive attitude,” she said. 

But some of the headlines in the foreign press, declaring Erdogan’s influence as on the wane and Imamoglu as a “unifying force”, have come too early, she said. 

“That would be an enormous claim. One way or another, Erdogan’s name is written with major letters on Turkish political history. It is too early to say such a thing for Imamoglu,” she said, though she also said the idea of having a good record as mayor is considered by many political aspirants as a blueprint for rising through the political ranks, set by Erdogan. 

“The fact that Erdogan’s career started from a municipality gives hope to a number of mayors to become an Erdogan-like figure. I can say that Erdogan’s career is seen as a ‘roadmap’.”

Waiting on the result

Imamoglu’s rise has not come without criticism, which has flowed from all sides. The secular CHP, the Kurdish-based leftist People’s Democratic Party and many from the ruling AK Party have accused Imamoglu of imitating Erdogan.

When he responded to the killing of 50 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand by recording a video, that went viral, of him reading the Quran inside the city's Eyupsultan mosque, he was accused by some of showing off or trying to appeal to conservative voters. 

Ali Kirimli, one of Imamoglu’s constituents in Beylikduzu, had simpler concerns. He said he did not vote for him because he doubted Imamoglu’s ability to govern a city as large as Istanbul. 

“He has a positive attitude but that is not the quality that I look for in a mayor, I can assure you that; I live in a part of Beylikduzu he totally forgot.”

The debates around Imamoglu’s future potential rest however on the result of the recounts which will decide whether or not he will become Istanbul’s mayor.

The head of the Supreme Electoral Council, Sadi Guven, announced Wednesday that there will have to be recounting in most of Istanbul, so Imamoglu’s wait may be a long one. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.