Will Imamoglu score victory in Istanbul election again?

On June 23, approximately 10 million voters in Istanbul will go to the polls to elect a mayor. From whichever angle one may have looked at the farce-like twists following the first and “real” municipal elections, this one will be as significant and as decisive to determine the fate of not only Istanbul but all of Turkey. Yet, huge question marks remain.

There is no doubt that Ekrem Imamoglu, a 49-year-old local district mayor in Istanbul, stands as the most powerful challenger not only to Binali Yildirim, a former Justice and Development (AKP) party's prime minister, but also to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the massive power he has accumulated over the years.

Imamoglu may be the final barrier between Erdogan and an absolutist order that Erdogan has worked so hard to build.

No doubt either that Imamoglu is seen as the “real” mayor of the city. He won the election March 31 by a margin of some 14,000 votes but his victory was taken away after a series of mind-boggling skulduggeries that led to a cancellation of the vote by the extremely pressurised Supreme Electoral Council.

His victory forcefully ripped away, Imamoglu has proven to be a fighter, going beyond his given territory and presenting himself as the saviour of Turkey from ruin and cruelty,  and as the next national leader, who is determined to unify the various social segments that Erdogan has divided and played against each other.

”How I won the race for mayor in Istanbul and how I will win again” was the title of Imamoglu’s opinion article for Washington Post.

Imamoglu has reasons to be self-confident. During Eid al-Fitr, he smartly used his family visit to the Black Sea coast, where he is originally from, to organise mass rallies. The sights in Giresun, Trabzon and Ordu were all impressive. Tens of thousands gathered in the squares in the traditional Erdogan strongholds, an indication that the tide — somehow, somewhat — was turning.

Soft-spoken, sympathetic and politically obstinate, Imamoglu is apparently rising in momentum as Turkey goes through a profound crisis that keeps the country in convulsions.

Some cautious observers, including myself, have questioned whether carrying the election torch outside the boundaries of a city, where the race is limited, is a sign of overconfidence. Countering Erdogan’s well-known, over-the-top populism with the same attitude is one thing and the acrimonious reality of today’s Turkey is another.

For Erdogan and his followers, Imamoglu’s rise on the political scene and his appearances outside Istanbul are seen as ”I want to rule not only Istanbul but the entire Turkey” — an existential threat to the president and his ruling party.

The example of jailed People’s Democratic Party leader Selahattin Demirtas, who is as sharp and sympathetic as Imamoglu, is alive in people’s memory as how relentless Erdogan can be when he perceives a serious challenge for his throne.

So, in many ways, Imamoglu, who in his ”let’s overcome divisions in the society” motto resembles late President Turgut Ozal, knows he has entered a minefield. Then again, maybe not.

Given the topsy-turvy state of the general order in Turkey, where the rule of law practically collapsed and the economy is plunging in recession, the anti-AKP crowds may have been displaying old reflexes but their enthusiasm may also be illusory. So are the public polls, which, the few are trustworthy, show again a neck and neck race, with 2 percentage points of difference in between.

Will Imamoglu win again? If the public furore is a sign, he may very well end up as a victor. In fairness, he deserves to be acknowledged and allowed to take office but there, at that very point, clouds gather over probabilities and much has to do with what Erdogan has in mind this time.

One theory is as simple as one can think of: Erdogan has run out of political ammunition. He has no longer anything to tell the crowds, and his words — much of them sheer lies — echo these days in the void. So, he may not do anything out of extraordinary to win these “repeat” elections but strike later.

The president has enough powers to define the fate of the municipalities, has further legislation plans for deepening the centralisation of power over local councils and he controls the entire judiciary and so-called autonomous state institutions, such as the Supreme Electoral Council.

Erdogan knows that Imamoglu’s rise resembles what happened with him years ago, that the one who wins Istanbul in this election — as Imamoglu did — could claim the presidency in the next possible occasion. Erdogan and the circles that surround him know that Imamoglu will not hesitate to make public all the corruption, dirty public tenders and cronyism that have marked AKP rule over Istanbul for 25 years. This is all a very dangerous, existential threat to Erdogan and his close circle.

The real race will start today. Until now, Imamoglu had to endure accusations on identity — that he is a “Greek” from Pontus, the ancient name of the eastern Black Sea region where a large Christian majority was based until a massive ethnic cleansing in 1914-23. The pessimists expect, however, that if Erdogan is fully determined not to let go of Istanbul, during the upcoming period before the election, a lot of ugly scenes could be played out.

They may be right: June 23 will mark a date when Islamists will show whether they are respectful of an election result if they witness a repeated loss. Their choice, then, will define the fate of Turkey.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.