Turkish opposition’s İmamoğlu could win more votes in new poll

Although Turkish opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu was officially confirmed as mayor of Istanbul after the March 31 election, he now faces a rerun following an appeal by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party.

But in the month since the polls, İmamoğlu’s popularity has if anything grown, and he could get more votes than last time round.

İmamoğlu created a broad coalition of support to narrowly win the polls in Turkey’s biggest city and financial centre. He also capitalised on economic dissatisfaction and overcame a media heavily biased in favour of the government. But his calm reaction to a series of recounts, recriminations and objections after the polls after the vote won the bespectacled, 49-year-old broad respect, and it may be that İmamoğlu increases his winning margin in a second vote.

At at first glance, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) politician might appear to be a slightly boring technocrat, with a human resource management degree and a background in construction. But İmamoğlu has used this perception of mild-mannered approachability to his advantage. Rather than compete with the big rallies held by the AKP during the election campaign, he concentrated on being seen as approachable. The contrast between this approach and Erdoğan’s aloof populism is striking, and has endeared him to many.

The way he handled the pressure of the election result, winning by 0.2 percent and facing recount calls from the AKP also set him apart from Muharrem Ince, the CHP candidate for president in 2018. Ince had promised to “fight until the bitter end”, but ended up conceding on election night via a WhatsApp message to a journalist. Ince then disappeared without making a televised statement until the next day, prompting speculation that he had been abducted, or had been drinking.

With the Istanbul municipal election now being rerun on June 23, İmamoğlu now has a bigger profile and a bigger platform to try to build on to score a more convincing victory.

Since April 2, İmamoğlu’s Twitter followers have increased from 1 million to 2 million. He has easily passed big figures from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) such as Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Treasury and Justice Minister Berat Albayrak and the man he beat to become Istanbul mayor, Binali Yıldırım, the low profile former prime minister and close Erdoğan ally. On Instagram too, İmamoğlu now has almost 3.5 million followers, an increase of 118% within the last month.

Like Erdoğan, İmamoğlu is a big football fan, with connections to Trabzonspor, the team of his hometown Trabzon. Supporters of the Istanbul team Beşiktaş, whose followers are anti-government, still chanted for İmamoğlu to be mayor as sat in the director’s box.

İmamoğlu has been the mayor of Istanbul’s Beylikdüzü district since 2014. He supported popular initiatives, such as courses to strengthen the bond between fathers and their children. He held events like "remembering Atatürk with prayers", reaching across the secular/religious divide that Erdoğan’s party has been pushing a wedge between for the last 17 years. Some of the more extreme government supporters, such as former Ankara mayor Melih Gökçek and pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit, have attempted to use İmamoğlu’s attendance at Orthodox Christian events as a way to smear him as being not sufficiently Muslim.

In his conciliatory approach to politics, İmamoğlu is slightly reminiscent of 1980s Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal, who attempted to reach out and initiate dialogue with Kurdish separatists and with the Armenian government before dying of a heart attack in 1993. İmamoğlu may be cultivating this comparison to Özal, as he went to pay his respects at Özal’s mausoleum on the 26th anniversary of his death. He recalled meeting Özal as a child in Trabzon, and praised Özal for bringing “a new dimension” to politics. Today Turkey is in a similar situation and “needs to breathe”, İmamoğlu said.

İmamoğlu has also taken a stand for political transparency. He has broadcast local political meetings on social media, with many videos being watched hundreds of thousands of times. In one meeting, AKP politicians refused to set up a committee to look at the crisis of drug addiction. After a backlash by viewers, the AKP changed its mind. İmamoğlu also broadcast regular press briefings throughout election night and in the days afterwards, showing his persistence in fighting for a fair outcome to the vote.

İmamoğlu’s conciliatory approach saw him publicly offering a hand of friendship to his opponent Binali Yıldırım when both attended the anniversary commemoration of Özal’s death. During another visit to the Grand Bazaar, he hugged an AKP supporter who refused to shake his hand, underlining the difference between his kinder attitude to opponents and Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. He told reporters after attending Özal’s memorial “if they don’t embrace, I’ll embrace. I’m good at hugging. Nobody can escape from my hugs.”

A favourite AKP line of attack is accusing CHP politicians of being anti-religious, but this has also been blunted by İmamoğlu, a practicing Muslim who scheduled Friday prayers into his campaign. However, this probably will not stop the more extreme end of pro-government media claiming that İmamoğlu is responsible for things like the cancelling of a religious book festival during Ramadan. Erdoğan and the AKP have also attempted to suggest that İmamoğlu is a lame duck leader, because of the disputed vote. İmamoğlu’s supporters have made fun of this suggestion, with some even bringing live ducks along to his public rallies.

As usual, wild commentary has been flowing from the imaginative brains of correspondents with news outlets like Yeni Şafak, whose commentator described İmamoğlu’s win as a project of secretive powers. As Erdoğan loses support among those affected by the current economic situation in Turkey, government media are increasing the ferocity of their attacks on the opposition.

The lira plunged against the dollar on news of the election was to be rerun. As Erdoğan seeks to hold onto power, government interference in the democratic process risks pushing the economy into a deeper crisis, which will likely increase the popularity of opposition figures like İmamoğlu.

İmamoğlu has made effective use of social media, which is one of the few avenues open to him to get his message across. But if he is to build on his success and challenge for the presidency in 2023, he will need to find ways to reach beyond they metropolitan areas that are usually more sympathetic to the CHP. It still seems more likely, given Turkey’s political history of new parties being formed from the splintering of governing parties, that Turkey’s next leader will come from within the AKP itself.

Using the hashtag #herşeyçokguzelolacak (#everythingwillbefine), social media users including many artists reiterated their support for İmamoğlu after the decision to re-run the election. With the Istanbul municipal election now being rerun in June, his increasing popularity after the March vote has given him a bigger profile and a bigger platform which he may be able to build on to score a more convincing victory.

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