Istanbul mayor’s strategy offers lesson to U.S. protesters in overcoming strong man leader – columnist

Anti-police brutality protesters in the United States should take a page from Istanbul’s opposition Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu when handling rhetoric and policies designed by their nations’ leaders to divide citizens and hold on to voter support, columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote in the New York Times on Tuesday.

The United States has seen unprecedented nationwide protests against racism and police brutality since the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by Minneapolis police in May.

Although the protests stirred some change in battling racial discrimination in the country, notably the tearing down of statues honouring Confederate-era figures, federal law enforcement officers without clear identification badges using force and unmarked vehicles have arrested protesters last week in accordance with an executive order from President Donald Trump to protect federal monuments and buildings.

“This is coming so straight from the Middle East Dictator’s Handbook,” Friedman said, comparing Trump’s use of unidentifiable state resources to arrest protesters to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who used pro-government thugs to make peaceful demonstrators in protests that soon led to a long-running civil war.

Authoritarian populists like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Assad “win by dividing the people and presenting themselves as the saviour of the good and ordinary citizens against the undeserving agents of subversion and ‘cultural pollution’”, the political commentator quoted Stanford’s Larry Diamond, author of “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency”, as saying.

Trump called U.S. cities experiencing unrest “all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left. If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”

The left in the United States needs to wisen up in how they protest to not be easily exploited by Trump’s tactic to divide public opinion and present himself as the “only source of law and order”, according to Friedman.

The Middle East pundit suggested protesters to counter Trump by “taking a page from” a campaign strategy dubbed “radical love” by İmamoğlu, who won the 2019 election to become Istanbul’s mayor in a major blow to Erdoğan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), despite the president “using every dirty trick possible” to win.

“Radical love meant reaching out to the more traditional and religious Erdoğan supporters, listening to them, showing them respect and making clear that they were not ‘the enemy’ – that Erdoğan was the enemy, because he was the enemy of unity and mutual respect, and there could be no progress without them,” Friedman wrote.

Turkey analysts and pundits maintain that Erdoğan has kept his voter base for years by persecuting any opposition towards Ankara, often referring to critics as “terrorists” and threats to national security, and pressing a neo-Ottoman agenda.

Friedman cited an essay on Imamoglu’s “radical love” strategy in The Journal of Democracy, which said the mayor overcame Erdoğan with a “message of inclusiveness, an attitude of respect toward (Erdoğan) supporters, and a focus on bread-and-butter issues that could unite voters across opposing political camps.

“On June 23, Imamoglu was again elected mayor of Istanbul, but this time with more than 54 percent of the vote — the largest mandate obtained by an Istanbul mayor since 1984 — against 45 percent for his opponent,” Friedman continued.