Ergin Hava –
Supporters cheer as Ekrem Imamoglu poses for a selfie while on his way down the lobby of a cultural centre in Istanbul’s Beylikduzu district.
“Do not let them take away what is yours,” one man says. “Do not worry my brother,” responds Imamoglu, the popular opposition candidate for mayor of Istanbul.
Preliminary results of March 31 polls show Imamoglu won a razor-thin victory against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s close associate and former prime minister Binali Yildirim.
Imamoglu, however, has yet to get his mandate as a recount continues in one last remaining district following requests by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan and the AKP claim fraud, adding that they could apply for an election rerun. Imamoglu and his main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deny the allegations.
As he struggles to cling to his still-unofficial victory, Imamoglu has been on an exhausting tour over the past 16 days, rallying Istanbul residents who voted for him. Emotions are high during his addresses, in which he repeats calls on the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) to finalise the recount process.
“I am not sure if the YSK is doing its duty. There are people who do their best so the recount cannot be finished. And the YSK cannot take measures against this,” Imamoglu tells in Beylikduzu, where he served as mayor for the past five years.
“The longer it takes, the more people lose faith.” Imamoglu’s rise from district mayor to shaking the 25-year rule by Erdogan’s conservatives in
Istanbul is unprecedented.
Erdogan led an intense election campaign, loaded with polarising remarks and denouncement of the opposition as terrorists, even as he was not on the ballot box. He even claimed Turkey’s very survival was at stake. The president dominated media coverage, while opposition figures were largely overshadowed.
Imamoglu thinks his softer, conciliatory tone helped him win in the city of 15 million. “We spoke about children, women, environment instead of concrete structures. This has resonated with the people.”
Istanbul carries critical importance for Erdogan. Born and raised in this metropolis, Erdogan rose to power as the mayor of the city. He once even said that whoever loses Istanbul, loses Turkey.
The loss of Istanbul would be a major upset for Erdogan also in financial terms, as the metropolis contains some of his signature megaprojects, including a multibillion-dollar canal.
It is unclear how much influence the mayor would have on such projects
run by Ankara.
Imamoglu says he would not reject a project without thoroughly analyzing it. “But we will not deceive people with expensive, meaningless projects,” he adds.
The AKP has not only lost Istanbul, but also the capital, Ankara, and several other urban centres amid economic troubles, inevitably limiting Erdogan’s ability to maintain political strength locally.
Ankara has put too much political pressure and control over previous Istanbul mayors from the AKP, according to Imamoglu.
They failed to generate enough funds for the city, he adds. He vows to rediscover Istanbul’s own capacity to “create one of the world’s largest city economies.”
A 49-year-old businessman from the Black Sea province of Trabzon, Imamoglu studied business administration at Istanbul University and holds a Master’s degree in human resources. He is involved in family business specialized in construction and food. Some analysts have separately referred to similarities between him and Erdogan. The president is also a former businessman. Both politicians are devout and appeal to the pious Anatolian heartland.
“I don’t know him very closely. Both of us played football. Maybe,that is,” Imamoglu says of his parallels with Erdogan.
Imamoglu’s grassroots support may already be expanding.
Over the weekend, thousands of fans chanted “Give the mandate to Ekrem Imamoglu” at Besiktas stadium during a game against Istanbul rivals Basaksehir, a club which Erdogan openly supports.
Ergin Hava –