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Istanbul’s ambitious mayor deals a new blow to Erdogan

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Istanbul’s ambitious mayor deals a new blow to Erdogan

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Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), greets his supporters following the early results in front of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB) in Istanbul, Turkey on April 1, 2024.
| Photo Credit: REUTERS

Ekrem Imamoglu’s second convincing victory in an Istanbul city election looks set to propel him into the running for the 2028 presidential vote.

The football-loving 52-year-old, who first became the mega-city’s mayor in 2019, on Sunday again defeated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s chosen candidate in the country’s economic powerhouse despite a concerted effort to unseat him by the veteran president.

“Tomorrow is a new spring day for our country,” Mr. Imamoglu told tens of thousands of euphoric supporters cheering his re-election late on Sunday, wearing his trademark shirtsleeves and rimless glasses.

Mr. Imamoglu, candidate for the social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), had spent much of the campaign targeting Mr. Erdogan rather than his nominal opponent, former Environment Minister Murat Kurum.

Largely unknown in 2019, Mr. Imamoglu that year ended 25 years of rule by Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its allies in the city of 16 million where the president was once mayor.

The smooth talking Imamoglu was initially stripped of his victory when the vote was controversially annulled. But he won by an even bigger margin in a re-run three months later.

He has since become one of Turkiye’s most popular politicians, even as he was targeted with legal action.

An Istanbul court ruled in late 2022 that Mr. Imamoglu had defamed city election officials by calling them “idiots”, sentencing him to nearly three years in jail.

It barred him from politics for the duration of the sentence.

Mr. Imamoglu has appealed, meaning that he has continued to serve as mayor while putting his fate in the hands of judges whose impartially he questioned.

Turkey ‘doesn’t deserve poverty’

In Sunday’s election, Mr. Imamoglu ran as the CHP candidate as he failed to get Turkiye’s fractured opposition parties to rally around his bid.

The size of his victory will also have stunned those erstwhile allies.

A practising Muslim leading a secular outfit, the former businessman can draw support from a wide spectrum of voters.

“He can attract all segments of the opposition electorate, whether it’s Turkish or Kurdish, Sunni or Alevi, young or old,” said Berk Esen, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Sabanci university.

Mr. Imamoglu’s original 2019 win came in an anti-Erdogan wave propelling the opposition into power in Turkey’s major cities — including the capital, Ankara.

A new generation of leaders from the staunchly secular CHP, including Mr. Imamoglu in Istanbul and Mansur Yavas in Ankara, offered a clear alternative to Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted AKP.

Some voters rebelled against sweeping purges that followed a failed putsch in 2016. Others were disillusioned by an economic crisis that has still not let up.

With inflation now above 65% and the lira currency massively devalued, Imamoglu said in January that Mr. Erdogan had “turned the rules of economics upside down”.

“This country doesn’t deserve poverty,” he added.

‘Atomic ant’

Now Mr. Imamoglu is seen as the most likely potential candidate to beat whoever stands for Erdogan’s party in the 2028 presidential election.

Some have accused him of thinking more of his own career than the job in front of him, which he denied by saying he works “like an atomic ant” in reference to a popular cartoon show.

Imamoglu has never hidden his presidential ambitions, but recently told opposition outlet Medyascope that “there are still four years until 2028. It would be unwarranted for me to talk about that today.”

As Erdogan has shown, running Istanbul with its vast population, administration and budget can be a path to national power.

Since Erdogan won a new term in last year’s presidential election, Imamoglu has challenged the leadership of his CHP, calling for change after former leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was defeated.

“Imamoglu is an effective political operator and at this point in time represents one of the very few glimmers of hope for constituents who oppose Erdogan and the AKP,” Anthony Skinner, director of research at geopolitical advisory firm Marlow Global, told AFP.

The Istanbul mayor has crafted a media image and run viral social media campaigns, that both raised his profile and got on the nerves of many voters.

State media, meanwhile, turned him into a hate figure.

In January 2022, pro-government media were awash with images taken by surveillance cameras of him having dinner with the British ambassador at a fish restaurant.

As Istanbul battled a snowstorm, the images played into the government’s portrayal of the mayor as out-of-touch and Western-backed.

During the election, he had to contend with Erdogan taking credit for many of the important projects that have modernised Istanbul over recent years.

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