Istanbul mayor seeks funding for Istanbul projects in London

Ekrem İmamoğlu, who became a figurehead for Turkey’s opposition by beating the odds to win election as Istanbul mayor this year, downplayed the idea of running for the presidency, saying instead he would work hard for Turkey’s most populous city and see where that took him.

The Istanbul mayor spoke to Bloomberg TV during a visit to London, where one of the subjects up for discussion was a possible $500-million bond sale that could help fund major projects.

These include a $2 billion metro construction project, plans to protect the city from the impact of climate change and other energy and environmental projects.

“Istanbul has many needs, but also has many resources. Istanbul has the capacity to cover the projects it needs, mainly transport, and especially metro projects,” İmamoğlu said. “They all have the capacity to finance themselves.”

The mayor was careful to play down criticism of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which forced him to stand for the Istanbul seat a second time after he won by a slim margin on March 31. He increased his lead to over 800,000 votes in the rerun in June.

Since the race raised his profile across the country, İmamoğlu has been touted as a potential candidate to rival President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the next presidential race, which is due in 2023. But, he said, he wished to focus only on his role as mayor.

“If you work hard, then people want to send you where they see fit without you planning for it,” he said.

The AKP has drawn criticism for its increasingly heavy-handed and authoritarian policies in recent years. Of particular concern to the financial world this year was the sacking of central bank governor Murat Çetinkaya, who resisted Erdoğan’s demands to slash interest rates.

But İmamoğlu said such measures were the result of a difficult economic context, and said the issues troubling Turkey were temporary.

Instead, the financial world should focus on the fact that “Istanbul has a mayor who shares all its resources with its people and who is transparent and accountable,” he said.

The mayor was keen to dwell on the potential of a city that he called a “centre of attraction … a mechanism that creates plenty. If you look at Europe, London is its centre in the west, Istanbul is its centre in the east.”

“If it was a single standalone economy it would be on a scale of more than $500 billion, and about 55 percent of the whole of Turkey’s economy is taking place in Istanbul,” İmamoğlu said.

With a municipal budget of $9 billion and potential for large projects to drum up considerable revenue, the mayor said the bond sale was by no means a necessity for his plans.

However, facing pressure from the AKP, which ruled the city for 25 years before his shock victory this year, the mayor will need to muster every resource to prove himself to the city’s 15 million inhabitants.

In a recent move seen by many as an attempt to seize the municipality from the opposition mayor, the AKP presented legislation that would transfer authority over the city’s prime Bosporus-side districts to a national body.

“I won the elections overcoming difficult. At this point no difficulty is difficult,” İmamoğlu said. “We will overcome this. What we’re saying to those people is that now you’re facing the actual majority, citizens who don’t care about power.”

“The democratic stance put forward by Turkey this year proved the following: If you’re not acting in line with people’s interests, demands, freedom and rights, you get sent out … It’s a very valuable stance in a world where populism has made its peak,” he said.