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Istanbul mayor Imamoglu's presidential ambitions dented by flood response

The senior CHP politician is facing a public relations disaster due to a series of mishaps and missteps, from the handling of a storm to broken buses
Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu twice won the Istanbul local election in 2019, when the government cancelled the first one (AFP)
By in
Istanbul, Turkey

When Istanbul faced a severe thunderstorm last weekend, which saw more than 7,000 lightning strikes and severe flooding, residents looked to Ekrem Imamoglu for help.

Yet the city‘s popular mayor was out of town, on the Turkish riviera for the Eid al-Adha holiday.

That came as a shock for many, including people who usually support him, with some speculating that his presidential ambitions have now been washed away by the torrential rainwater.

“Dear Imamoglu, it seems like you are at peace. You aren’t in Istanbul, you are enjoying yourself now with a vacation. But Istanbulians aren’t having a happy Eid,” Burak Birsen, an anchorman for the popular Fox TV and known for being a government critic, said on Monday.

“He was, once again as in the past, on holiday in Bodrum during a flooding disaster, and went skiing after visiting earthquake victims, and met a foreign ambassador while there was a fight against a snow storm.” 

A TV clip showing the flooding in Esenyurt

Imamoglu, 52, emerged as one of the opposition’s best-known leaders after the government forced a re-run of the 2019 local elections in Istanbul, which he had narrowly won. His campaign espousing love, and his political style, which was markedly different to the usual secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) rhetoric, won him many ardent supporters.

When forced to repeat the 2019 election, he won far more convincingly, cementing his name in Turkish politics. 

However, his success also created fractures within the CHP leadership, especially with the chairman, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose calculated policies and efforts to build alliances with normally rival opposition parties have helped to win many pro-government cities.

Kilicdaroglu, after years of gradually moving the CHP from secularist politics to being a centre-left party that can talk to conservatives and Kurds alike, would like to run for the presidency next year as a joint opposition candidate. 

Numerous polls indicate that Imamoglu would do better against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan than Kilicdaroglu. After months of speculation and bickering, Imamoglu reluctantly appeared to throw his support behind Kilicdaroglu. But the selection process is still continuing. 

“Imamoglu’s team has been hiring people with the promise that they would one day serve the future president,” said an opposition source close to Imamoglu. “I don’t think he has abandoned that dream yet.” 

Barıs Yarkadas, a former CHP MP and pro-opposition journalist, criticised Imamoglu on live TV for his absence during the storm last weekend, saying it was unacceptable. “The interior minister is in Istanbul, the governor is in Istanbul. Where is Imamoglu? I cannot accept his absence as a CHP voter,” he said. 

Imamoglu first tried to tackle the public relations crisis that followed the storm by sending a series of tweets, insisting that he was remotely coordinating the anti-flooding efforts. 

But that didn’t stop the criticism, and pro-government outlets and pundits continued to attack him for his lack of leadership on other issues, such as his failure to properly maintain public buses, which almost every month seem to break down, catch fire, or crash. 

“The store owners, the very ones who voted for Imamoglu, now say he didn’t deliver the things he promised,” said a political analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Having met many businessmen, I think he is losing the public relations battle.” 

Imamoglu initially turned the city into a construction site by launching many projects or relaunching some that were frozen due to lack of funds. In response, Erdogan squeezed Imamoglu by not approving many foreign loans and discouraging local banks from getting involved with the projects.

The mayor later managed to get approval for some loans, yet the pace of the projects remains sluggish. 

His occasional political missteps, such as hosting a controversial columnist and other polarising journalists on a Black Sea tour using city funds and public transportation during the pandemic, have damaged Imamoglu's reputation even among his supporters. 

After returning to Istanbul on Thursday from his holiday, Imamoglu defended himself, saying that the municipality has more than 3,000 employees who combat flooding and run necessary services.

“The flooding only took place in Esenyurt, which has had the same problem in previous years,” he said, blaming the past administration for narrowing a stream bed. “We don’t have a 'one man' mentality in our municipality. The services are running and will be running without that 'one man' [for everything] thinking.” 

Imamoglu’s supporters say his administration has spent well over 3bn lira ($172m) on infrastructure projects that have stopped flooding in many crucial areas, such as Uskudar and Ortakoy. 

Veysi Dundar, a columnist for opposition-aligned Politik Yol, said in an article on Tuesday that government supporters weren’t holding other municipalities responsible in the same way that are going after Imamoglu.

“The work in Istanbul diminished the flooding impact, such as the Kurbagalidere [stream in Istanbul], which used to be stinky. Now citizens live right next to it without any disaster,” he wrote.

“The ruling AKP should give account of why it couldn’t stop the flooding in the city which they ran between 1994 and 2019.”

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