The Burden of Being İmamoğlu

Ekrem İmamoğlu must feel the weight of the world on his shoulders.

If the main opposition candidate loses the June 23 rerun election for Istanbul mayor, analysts have said that Turkish democracy will have been effectively killed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which pressured the election council to scupper the March 31 result and set up the second vote. If he wins, Turkish democracy will survive, but remain on life support.

Since his apparent victory two months ago, İmamoğlu has been hailed again and again as the rising star of Turkish politics, the country’s best hope for staving off dictatorship. Last but not least, as Erdoğan is fond of saying, “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”.

No pressure, Ekrem.

This week, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate may have begun to show signs of cracking. On Monday, İmamoğlu was asked during a television interview whether he had a message for terrorist groups.

“Come, let's govern Turkey together,” he said, before going on to say that Turks stand together against terrorism. An AKP official posted online a video showing only the first part of İmamoğlu’s response, which was soon shared by hundreds of people.

The next day, İmamoğlu visited a restaurant where a young male employee, while shaking the candidate’s hand, asked about the viral video. İmamoğlu urged the man to watch the full video, and, after a tense exchange, patted the man’s cheek as he walked away.

Pro-government media jumped all over him, saying he had admitted to supporting terrorists and been disrespectful and aggressive toward a voter expressing his view. Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, who earlier in the week said İmamoğlu had appeared irritable of late, declared that he had slapped the employee.

On Wednesday, İmamoğlu denounced what he saw as a disinformation campaign. “There are now people in this society who think they are climbing the political ladder by marring someone, this is very sad,” he said, before addressing the interior minister. “Some people may have visual impairment. I recommend that he sees a doctor.”

İmamoğlu has seemed on edge of late, even out of sorts. His initial response to the terrorist question, though an attempt to encourage unity, was all kinds of wrong. And his handling of the restaurant employee was borderline condescending - certainly not the kind of interaction one expects from a frontrunner who has campaigned on kindness and unity.

In the March 31 result, İmamoğlu barely edged his AKP opponent, former prime minister Binali Yıldırım, winning by some 13,000 out of 8.5 million votes. The latest polls show him broadening his lead.

In a survey conducted between May 15 and 20 by MAK consulting, the CHP candidate received 47 percent support, two points ahead of Yıldırım. In a poll from Optimar, İmamoğlu led by four points, with the support of 52 percent of those surveyed.

Pre-election polls in Turkey have proven notoriously problematic in recent years, and both of these were taken before İmamoğlu’s stumbles this week.

Still, these polls suggest the momentum has shifted little in recent weeks, that the annulment of the March 31 vote and the looming inevitability of yet another electoral victory for Erdoğan and the AKP have failed to sway voters.

The rerun vote is still more than three weeks away. But if İmamoğlu is able to regain that steely composure that saw him through what must have been the most difficult night of his life - when Yıldırım declared victory just before midnight on March 31, and then the results stopped coming in - he has a good chance of winning again.

“The Istanbul election has become a symbol for democracy,” he told Reuters this month.
Maybe this time the margin will be too big for Erdoğan and the election council to dismiss, and Istanbul can begin to move forward, dragging Turkish democracy along with it.  

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