May 23 2019

Why Turkey’s Imamoğlu is not playing the victim - analysis

Turkey’s opposition candidate for Istanbul mayor is refraining from a narrative of victimhood in his campaign for the rerun election because of the country’s complex history of repression and the persistence of deep ideological conflicts among political parties, said an analysis for the Washington Post.

Ekrem İmamoğlu from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) served less than three weeks as Istanbul’s mayor after his narrow March 31 victory over the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate.

That vote was annulled on May 6 by Turkey’s election council, and a rerun set for June 23, following allegations of irregularities and fraud by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party.

In the wake of the annulment, İmamoğlu has received recognition for his positive outlook and mild-mannered approach, unifying voters rather than highlighting his political mistreatment.

“Recent research in political science suggests that İmamoğlu may benefit from the widespread perception that he has suffered at the hands of Erdoğan,” Kimberly Guiler, research fellow at the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Jonas Bergan Draege, postdoctoral fellow at the Middle East Initiative, wrote for the Washington Post on Wednesday.

“Voters in Turkey are more likely to feel positively toward candidates who cite experiences of political suffering in their biographies,” the authors write, referring to recent research by Guiler.  

So why has İmamoğlu chosen not to highlight how he was stripped of a post he lawfully won? First, he does not need to highlight his suffering because the nullification of the March vote is already a focus of the opposition, pundits and Turkish citizens, who fear the reversal represents an end to Turkey’s democracy, according to Guiler and Draege.

Second, İmamoğlu is a candidate for a party that has perpetrated electoral injustices in the past, particularly during the one-party period following Turkey’s founding, the authors said.

As recently as May 2016, the CHP supported the AKP government’s proposal to lift prosecutorial immunity for members of parliament, which led to the imprisonment of dozens of leading opposition politicians, including presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş from the predominantly Kurdish Democratic People’s Party.

A third reason İmamoğlu may be avoiding a campaign of victimhood is that his CHP is aligned with the nationalist Good Party and the HDP. These parties are, respectively, ideologically aligned with the Turkish armed forces and the Kurdish insurgents those armed forces have been fighting for decades in the country’s southeast, most recently in early 2016.

“Were İmamoğlu to try to appeal broadly with victimhood narratives, he would risk pitting potential voters against one another,” said Guiler and Draege. “It was not long ago that İmamoğlu’s supporters were victims of one another rather than the AKP.”