The election of Ekrem İmamoğlu as the mayor of Istanbul has electrified his party and unified a fractured coalition of leftists, Kurds, nationalists, and the disaffected devout.
On Sunday, June 23rd, fireworks lit up the sky above Istanbul as tens of thousands of people gathered in a city square to celebrate the election of Ekrem İmamoğlu as mayor. İmamoğlu, of the Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., defeated the former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., for the second time in three months. İmamoğlu’s sweeping victory instantly made him the new face of Turkey’s resurgent political opposition. For the first time since Erdoğan began his own political ascent as Istanbul’s mayor, in 1994, a challenger has taken control of the Turkish leader’s home town.
Before his historic win, İmamoğlu appeared to be the latest in a long line of rivals whom Erdoğan had deftly outmaneuvered. In nationwide municipal elections in March, İmamoğlu narrowly defeated Yıldırım—by fewer than fourteen thousand votes, out of more than eight million cast—in the race for Istanbul. Voters also revolted across the country, kicking A.K.P. mayors out of the capital, Ankara, and a string of provincial cities.
Less than three weeks later, İmamoğlu was stripped of his title after the A.K.P. refused to concede defeat and the centrally controlled electoral board overturned the result, citing irregularities. In the rematch last weekend, İmamoğlu’s winning margin ballooned to around eight hundred thousand votes, a fifty-four-per-cent share of the total, more than double the one enjoyed by Erdoğan when he won the mayoralty. “We will bring freedoms to this society, we will repair the injustices of this society,” İmamoğlu exhorted the crowd at his victory celebration that night. “We will embrace one another, and we will succeed in spite of everything.”
In Istanbul, Erdoğan campaigned as if his own name were on the ballot. The increasingly authoritarian leader, who has ruled the country for sixteen years, first as Prime Minister and now as President, has often quoted a Turkish political saying: “Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey.” Many of İmamoğlu’s supporters see his mayoral campaign as a dress rehearsal for higher office—a path to national power that would mirror Erdoğan’s. Across the country, İmamoğlu’s victory has both electrified the C.H.P.—which has long been a bastion of the country’s secular old guard but had fallen out of power for decades—and unified a fractured opposition composed of leftists, Kurds, nationalists, and the disaffected devout.
An easygoing but religiously observant former construction executive, İmamoğlu, who is forty-nine years old, had served just one five-year term as mayor of an outlying suburb when he launched his campaign against Yıldırım. Erdoğan warned that the nation’s survival was at stake in the race, accusing the C.H.P. of working with “terrorists” because of its outreach to a Kurdish political party. But those admonishments did not address voters’ financial concerns during a painful economic slowdown that has crippled the lira, driven food prices up thirty per cent, and put millions of people out of work.
İmamoğlu approached his campaigns with a love-thy-enemy message designed to counter Erdoğan’s divisive populism, a strategy his party called “radical love.” His speeches were peppered with humor and empathy, and he carefully avoided responding when attacked by the President. According to Aykan Erdemir—a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, and a former lawmaker for the C.H.P.—İmamoğlu’s “personal style makes his social-democratic policies more palatable to constituencies who earlier would have been put off by the old right-left polarization.” A practicing Muslim, İmamoğlu once belonged to the youth branch of a right-wing party that has since been absorbed by the A.K.P., and on the campaign trail he would ask Erdoğan’s defenders not for their votes but for their prayers. “His politics are secular, but he fasts and does not miss Friday prayers. He understands conservative values because he shares them,” Şirin Mine Kılıç, the author of an authorized biography on İmamoğlu, told me.
Like Erdoğan’s family, İmamoğlu, whose name translates as “son of a preacher,” is from a conservative Black Sea province. Both he and Erdoğan were semi-professional soccer players in their youth, and each rose through the ranks of local politics to become Istanbul’s mayor. İmamoğlu also appears to have borrowed from the A.K.P.’s early campaigns, when Erdoğan embraced big-tent politics and pledged to clean up corruption. “They are both natural leaders, like pied pipers who are able to coax people onto their path,” Kılıç said.
But to force the Istanbul rerun was an uncharacteristic miscalculation by Erdoğan, Turkey’s most successful modern politician, who has won fifteen successive votes. His most surprising politicial error, some critics say, was to forget his own underdog narrative: Erdoğan, too, was stripped of his mayorship, in 1998, and jailed for four months, after publically reciting an Islamist-hued poem, which the then secular government felt was meant to “incite hatred.” Some observers suggest that Erdoğan’s blunder in the Istanbul mayoral race stemmed from hubris. “The A.K.P.’s failure to understand the first result led to an incoherent, eclectic, confusing, and ill-defined [second] campaign, and turned what would have otherwise been a simple loss into a thrashing,” Kemal Can, a journalist who has written about Turkey’s right wing for three decades, told me. He added, “This series of mistakes also made a contrasting, and far stronger, figure out of İmamoğlu.”
But the A.K.P. is far from spent. It controls most of Istanbul’s district municipalities and its city council and is already working on legislation to rein in İmamoğlu’s budgetary powers. Erdoğan, who is sixty-five, remains in charge of the central government and does not face reëlection until 2023. Last year, he inaugurated a vastly empowered Presidential system that sidelines Turkey’s parliament and puts key institutions, such as parts of the judiciary and central bank, under his control. His critics see it as part of a wider erosion of Turkish democracy, which was most evidently displayed in the jailing of tens of thousands of Erdoğan’s opponents, following a bungled military coup in 2016, and a crackdown on Kurdish politicians. Public debate over these and other issues is hampered: more journalists sit in prison in Turkey than in any other country, and nine out of ten newspapers and TV channels are owned either by the state or businesses close to the government.
Many of those companies have profited from a building boom in Istanbul during Erdoğan’s rule. Control of the four-billion-dollar municipal budget gave the mayor the power to hand out contracts and jobs, feeding a patronage machine in a city that accounts for nearly a third of Turkey’s economy. After his eighteen-day stint at city hall, İmamoğlu said he had discovered examples of the previous administration’s wasteful spending, including millions of dollars that were diverted to companies and charities close to the ruling élite. “Erdoğan relies both on ideology and handouts to clients to run a tight ship, and, at this point, he no longer has the moral high ground nor the lucrative handouts to mobilize followers,” Erdemir, from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said.
In the final days of the campaign, Erdoğan employed strongman tactics typical of his domestic agenda. He intimated that İmamoğlu could be jailed for allegedly insulting a provincial governor. (İmamoğlu denies the accusation.) At the same time, a trial against İmamoğlu’s campaign strategist began last week, on charges that she insulted Erdoğan and spread terrorist propaganda in years-old social-media posts. If found guilty, she faces as much as seventeen years in prison. Since the opposition’s victory, though, Erdoğan has struck a more conciliatory tone, congratulating İmamoğlu at an A.K.P. parliamentary meeting and promising that he would not bear a grudge against Istanbul. “We don’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye or deaf ear to the message our people have given us,” he said.
But the A.K.P.’s loss of Istanbul is likely “sending aftershocks that will impact the political order,” Akif Beki, a former adviser to Erdoğan, who now writes a column for Karar, a conservative newspaper, told me. “There was unhappiness within the A.K.P. before this defeat, and speculation of a splinter party,” he said, referring to reports that high-level A.K.P. members, including a former President, plan to defect and start a separate party. Kemal Can, the journalist, added that the A.K.P. will now likely be occupied with internal score-settling, and with addressing the outsized influence wielded by its ultranationalist coalition partners, on which it relies for a parliamentary majority.
İmamoğlu, for his part, has said that he is not contemplating his next move but is instead focussed on running a city with an economy and population greater than those of most European nations. When a reporter asked him during the campaign whether he might be Turkey’s next President, he smiled and replied, “God knows.”