In Imamoğlu Turkey’s CHP found a politician that can broaden appeal - analysis

Turkey’s secularist Republican People Party (CHP) has managed to attract pious voters by choosing Ekrem İmamoğlu, a practicing Muslim, as its mayoral candidate for Istanbul, Foreign Affairs said on Friday.

Initial results of the March 31 polls show İmamoğlu narrowly won control of Turkey’s biggest city and economic powerhouse, seemingly ending the 25-year rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Islamist predecessors.

The AKP demanded a rerun of the March 31 mayoral election after İmamoğlu emerged as the winner with less than 0.2 percent of the more than eight million votes cast in Istanbul. A recount of invalidated votes demanded by the AKP underway still leaves İmamoğlu in the lead by 13,963 votes, Cumhuriyet newspaper said on Friday. 

Losing Istanbul is a major financial hit to the AKP and a personal one for Erdoğan, whose rise to power begun when he became Istanbul’s mayor in 1994. Turkish president campaigned relentlessly for local elections, even sidelining the party’s mayoral candidate and former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım by taking the stage and warning his voters that the nation’s survival was at stake, Foreign Affairs said. 

İmamoğlu, a largely unknown district mayor of Istanbul, ran his campaign with almost no media presence, using social media to live stream his visits to street markets and addressing everyday problems of Istanbul’s residents.

“Pious voters have long shunned the centrist CHP, repelled by its rigidly secularist ideology and stodgy, elitist image. But nominating İmamoglu, a practicing Muslim who scheduled time on the campaign trail to attend Friday prayers, allowed the CHP, humbled by so many years in the political wilderness, to broaden its appeal,” Foreign Affairs said. 

According to Akif Beki, a columnist and a former press adviser to Erdoğan, İmamoğlu, who grew up in a religious family in the conservative Black Sea region, doesn’t carry the baggage of a classic CHP politician. “Efforts to discredit him by saying he’s an enemy of the azan [the call to prayer] or will knock down mosques just don’t stick,” Foreign Affairs quoted İmamoğlu as saying. 

In this local elections, the CHP declared victory in most of the places it chose to nominate mayoral candidates among local politicians, which signals a shift from its top-down approach. “In Imamoglu, it found a politician who got his start in local politics, with natural reflexes and who genuinely knows how to communicate with the man on the street,” said Emre Erdoğan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

According to Emre Erdoğan, İmamoğlu resembles the Turkish president in some ways. “Like Erdoğan, Imamoğlu believes he possesses the secret formula for continued political success,” he said.