Turkey’s ruling party emulates opposition in Istanbul mayor race

Since launching his campaign for the June 23 rerun of the vote to elect a new mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s ruling Islamist party candidate, Binali Yıldırım, has been widely criticised for mimicking his secular opponent, Ekrem İmamoğlu.

When İmamoğlu was declared winner of the first vote on March 31, it meant not only an end to the lucrative 25-year control of the city municipality by Islamist parties linked to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but also rekindled hopes the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could be defeated at the ballot box.

This helps explains why the AKP and its candidate have launched an aggressive election campaign for the June 23 vote, ordered after the ruling party objected to the results the first time round, and has focused on Istanbul residents who failed to vote on March 31. Reports say these were mostly AKP voters.

On May 15, the Istanbul city council approved a motion to decrease the price of water and the monthly transport pass for university students. “Good news for the people of Istanbul,” Yıldırım tweeted, adding that his party was fulfilling promises made to voters.

Yet in reality it was the main opposition party’s İmamoğlu, not the AKP, who had promised to cut transport and water costs before the March 31 vote, after which he was criticised by the country’s leader. “How can you make something for free, taking money from whose pocket?” Erdoğan asked about the proposal.

During İmamoğlu’s 18 days as mayor, the AKP, which still had a majority in the city council, voted down nearly all of his proposals. Yet immediately after İmamoğlu’s mayoral mandate was cancelled by the election council’s annulment decision, the council approved those measures. The only difference was that they had suddenly become “AKP proposals”.

“Young people, stay away from imitations and fakes,” İmamoğlu tweeted two days after the council approved his cost reductions.

One voter wondered why, if these were AKP ideas, had they not been implemented until now. “They could have done these before, why did they not?” asked Aysel Yaprakçı. “Binalı Yıldırım served as transportation minister, as prime minister. They could have done these cuts during that time.”

Stolen proposals are just the beginning. The evening the initial Istanbul vote was annulled, İmamoğlu gathered with supporters in Istanbul. “Everything will be fine,” he told them, an assertion that quickly became a trending hashtag on Twitter. A week later, Yıldırım revealed his new campaign slogan: “Istanbul will be better.”

An active 48-year-old, İmamoğlu has little trouble reaching out to younger voters. Many of his projects and proposals target the youth, particularly the unemployed. And though he has a significantly shorter and less prominent political career, İmamoğlu far outshines his opponent on social media, with 2.5 million Twitter followers compared to Yıldırım’s 1.4 million.

“I am at an iftar meal with my buddies,” the 65-year-old Yıldırım tweeted in early May, sharing a video of him at a table with four young men. The holy month of Ramadan became a political battleground, with the dueling candidates joining locals for iftar meals nearly every evening.

Istanbul resident Keriman Karakuş thinks Yıldırım is stealing from İmamoğlu and looks absurd doing it. “He even took his slogan. He imitates İmamoğlu 100 percent,” Karakuş said.

Some Istanbul voters disagree. Loyal AKP supporter Bekir Sezginoğlu argued that Yıldırım and the AKP have over the years done a great deal for Istanbul.

“Where was İmamoğlu when we had water shortages?” he asked. “We used to keep water in plastic bins. It is easy to decrease the price when there is water.”

Yıldırım has repeatedly said that the AKP lost the previous mayoral race in Istanbul because of stolen votes. Yet, according to Mahir Kıyak and Cem Pirinçoğlu, two younger voters, it’s the ruling party that is guilty of theft.

“They are stealing [İmamoğlu’s] promises like they steal everything,” Kıyak said.

“We should be careful, otherwise they can steal İmamoğlu too,” said Pirinçoğlu.