Little known till the beginning of the electoral campaign, opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu (CHP) triumphed at the Istanbul municipal elections last March, later cancelled. A portrait of the young politician on the eve of the rerun, scheduled for June 23rd
On March 31, Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu’s victory in municipality elections brought an end to the 25-year rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in İstanbul. Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) gave İmamoğlu his mandate on April 17. But his victory did not last long.
AKP objected to the official results. “We maintain that organised fraud, unlawfulness and crimes were committed,” AKP Deputy Chairman Ali Ihsan Yavuz said. On May 6, after İmamoğlu serving as the İstanbul mayor for a mere 18 days, YSK ordered the rerun of İstanbul elections. The official body announced that the election was marred by irregularities. CHP harshly criticized the YSK decision: there was no concrete evidence for annulment, so the decision to renew the election was completely illegitimate, according to CHP officials. On the same day, opposition’s 49-year-old candidate İmamoğlu addressed the upset crowd of his supporters, welcoming them with warm and strong words. He declared that he would not give up despite the unfair YSK decision:
“Maybe you are upset, but you should never lose hope. Our path is long. Our excitement is at its peak. We are young! We are the Turkish youth. We are thirsty for justice. We have full faith in democracy. We will never give up!”
Ekrem İmamoğlu was not a popular figure in politics before the race to become İstanbul's mayor. It took his campaign team 112 days to turn him into a well-known politician across the country. Unlike his rival Binali Yıldırım, ex-prime minister of Turkey, İmamoğlu had limited political experience. He, however, emerged as a rising star in a short span of time. How did this happen?
Born in Trabzon, a city on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, İmamoğlu studied business administration at İstanbul University and later on received his master’s degree in management. He became the mayor of İstanbul's Beylikdüzü district in 2014.
After the announcement of his candidacy, Ekrem İmamoğlu appeared as a moderate and mild-mannered character on the politician scene. His moderate tone began with an important appointment: in January, he met with President Erdoğan in Ankara to fulfil his promise to visit all previous İstanbul mayors. “We talked about Istanbul. I listened to his advice. He told remarkable anecdotes. When I asked for his vote, he smiled,” İmamoğlu told the press after their meeting.
In a very polarized society like Turkey, İmamoğlu managed to construct a unifying political discourse during his entire campaign. “Everything will be fine” became his campaign slogan, raising hopes for possible political change on the opposition side. His inclusive rhetoric caught not only the attention of people of İstanbul but also citizens in other cities. He managed to stand against the divisive and sexist political language unlike average politicians in Turkey. “No matter their ethnic roots, we respect 82 million citizens living in this country,” he recently said in his hometown Trabzon.
According to İmamoğlu, partisanship is the biggest enemy of the country, paving the way for deep polarization in society. One of his promises for İstanbul is to avoid and end partisanship and bring equality. In the take-over ceremony in April, İmamoğlu addressed thousands of people in front of the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality. “We will not treat people differently based on their ethnic backgrounds, races or sects. We are bringing peace, we are bringing love to this beautiful city, to these beautiful people. I am saluting everyone. Turks, Kurds, Muslims, Sunnis, Alevis, Christians of this city,” he said. The young opposition leader also has declared that for İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality the time for serving associations, persons, religious groups and foundations linked to a sole political party has come to an end. İmamoğlu’s words were applauded for several minutes.
“Who wins Istanbul wins Turkey”
Unlike most of the CHP politicians, İmamoğlu did not distance himself from religious practices in public. He reached the religious voters by performing prayers in mosques, attending Friday prayers during the campaigning period. He also did not shy away from religious communities in İstanbul. In December, he has visited Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, the Patriarchal Vicar of the Syriac Orthodox Church Metropolit Filiksinos Yusuf Çetin and Apostolic Administrator of the Armenian Archeparchy of Istanbul Archbishop Levon Zekiyan for Christmas.
İstanbul is the largest city in Turkey with 15 million inhabitants, nearly 20 per cent of the entire country's population. In 2017, “Who wins Istanbul wins Turkey,” President Erdoğan said in an AKP meeting. This general belief dominates Turkish politics and that is why İstanbul mayoral elections became a huge matter of debate, which will be renewed on June 23.
İmamoğlu was also successful to get the critical support of Kurdish voters in İstanbul. “Before the March 31 elections, we have expressed our concerns about political discourse in the campaign. An ultra nationalistic language would push away (pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party) HDP voters but İmamoğlu did not do that,” HDP officials told OBC Transeuropa.
In a country where President Erdoğan has been the dominant political leader for many years, İmamoğlu’s positive and confident messages started to make a constructive impact on Turkish society. In his speeches, İmamoğlu repeatedly used the words of “unity”, “justice”, “peace” and “democracy”. Turkish people were not familiar with such a soft-spoken, young politician in a friendly manner since the rise of Selahattin Demirtaş, former HDP co-chair who is in jail now for two years. Many political analysts, as well as voters, drew parallels between İmamoğlu and Demirtaş.
Last Sunday, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Binali Yıldırım faced off in a historic televised debate. CHP candidate indicated that the renewed election is more than a local election, rather a struggle for democracy. “It’s a fight for democracy against those who violated our rights and the rights of 16 million people,” he told.
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