Crowds turn out for Turkish opposition candidate on Black Sea coast

(Updates with information on the rallies)

The main opposition candidate for mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, has was greeted by crowds of thousands on Wednesday in his home town of Trabzon, where he toured the city to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

He went on to give separate rallies at nearby Black Sea cities on Wednesday night.

Imamoglu was declared winner of the original March 31 vote for mayor, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) launched an appeal that led to electoral authorities ordering a rerun for June 23.

Despite the setback that saw İmamoğlu stripped of his mayor's mandate last month, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP)'s candidate has remained upbeat about his chances in the rerun. His March 31 victory, meanwhile, has propelled him from being virtually unknown to being one of the most significant opposition leaders in the country.

Journalist Özlem Gürses, who was with the CHP candidate in Trabzon, described how the crowds greeting İmamoğlu in various district of the city were so large that at times they blocked the roads.

The opposition candidate urged Trabzon natives who were visiting their families from their permanent homes in Istanbul to return for the vote later this month, and asked Trabzon locals to call friends and acquaintances in Istanbul and talk to them about the poll.

He went on to give a speech to a packed and excited crowd in the central square in the nearby city of Ordu, addressing the crowd in the rousing manner that has become his trademark.

During the rally, İmamoğlu also slammed pro-goverment outlets and ruling party supporters for calling him Pontic Greek, the T24 news website reported.

The AKP and its supporters had taken to labelling İmamoğlu a Pontic Greek, after the Greek newspaper Ethnos last month described the politician as “the Pontic who took Istanbul from Erdoğan”. The Greek daily was referring to İmamoğlu’s birth place of Trabzon, which for centuries was part of Pontus and home to an ethnic Greek group.

Tevfik Göksu, the mayor of Istanbul’s conservative Esenler district, was the first AKP politician to imply that İmamoğlu had Pontic roots, a slur to many Turkish nationalists.

The reference has become so widespread that nearly all critical comments on social media against the politician include the word Pontus. 

Ali Kopuz, the deputy head of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), said on Tuesday that a group that protested Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu in Istanbul had Pontic roots like İmamoğlu.

İmamoğlu, who is visiting his hometown for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, addressed a rally in Trabzon on Wednesday.

“They cannot find anything else. They waste their time with Ekrem’s beliefs, ethnic identity. My brothers, everybody living in this city knows my family. You cannot insult someone over ethnic identity,” İmamoğlu said.

Political analysts say İmamoğlu’s roots in Trabzon are an advantage as Istanbul is home to a large population that has migrated from Black Sea provinces since early 1960s.

Mehmet Acet, a columnist for the pro-government Yeni Şafak daily, said in May that the ruling party’s votes were significantly lower on March 31 compared to previous elections in Istanbul neighbourhoods populated with Black Sea immigrants, citing an in-house AKP report.

Erdoğan’s family is also from the Black Sea province of Rize and the Turkish president is hugely popular in the region. Nearly 70 percent of voters in Trabzon voted for Erdoğan last year in presidential and parliamentary elections.