Why Turkish opposition’s Imamoglu could win more votes in new election

Rather than compete with the big rallies staged by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, Imamoglu concentrated on being seen as approachable.
Sunday 26/05/2019
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu (C) greets his supporters during a gathering in Istanbul, last April. (Reuters)
Mild-mannered approachability. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu (C) greets his supporters during a gathering in Istanbul, last April. (Reuters)

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

However, in the month since the first vote, Imamoglu’s popularity has, if anything, grown and he could receive more votes than last time.

Imamoglu created a broad coalition of support to narrowly win the vote in Turkey’s biggest city and financial centre. He capitalised on economic dissatisfaction and overcame a media heavily biased in favour of the government.

His calm reaction to a series of recounts, recriminations and objections after the vote won the bespectacled 49-year-old broad respect and it may be that Imamoglu increases his winning margin in the second election.

At first glance, Imamoglu, from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), might appear to be a slightly boring technocrat, with a human resource management degree and a background in construction, but he has used the perception of mild-mannered approachability to his advantage.

Rather than compete with the big rallies staged by the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), he concentrated on being seen as approachable. The contrast between his approach and Erdogan’s aloof populism is striking and has endeared Imamoglu to many.

The way he handled the pressure of the election result, winning by 0.17% and facing recount calls from the AKP, also set him apart from Muharrem Ince, the CHP candidate for president in 2018. Ince promised to “fight until the bitter end” but ended up conceding on election night via a WhatsApp message to a journalist. Ince 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 being rerun on June 23, Imamoglu has a bigger profile and a bigger platform to build on to score a more convincing victory.

Since April 2, Imamoglu’s Twitter followers have increased from 1 million to 2 million. He easily passed big figures from the ruling AKP such as Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Treasury and Justice Minister Berat Albayrak and the man he beat to become Istanbul mayor, Binali Yildirim, the low-profile former prime minister and close Erdogan ally. On Instagram too, Imamoglu has almost 3.5 million followers, an increase of 118% within the last month.

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

Imamoglu has been the mayor of Istanbul’s Beylikduzu district since 2014. He supported popular initiatives, such as courses to strengthen the bond between fathers and their children. He had events such as “remembering Ataturk with prayers,” reaching across the secular/religious divide that Erdogan’s party has been pushing a wedge between for 17 years.

Some of the more extreme government supporters, such as former Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek and pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit, attempted to use Imamoglu’s attendance at Orthodox Christian events to smear him as being not sufficiently Muslim.

In his conciliatory approach to politics, Imamoglu is slightly reminiscent of 1980s Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, who attempted to initiate dialogue with Kurdish separatists and with the Armenian government before dying of a heart attack in 1993.

Imamoglu, who paid his respects at Ozal’s mausoleum on the 26th anniversary of his death, may be cultivating this comparison. He recalled meeting Ozal as a child in Trabzon and praised him for bringing “a new dimension” to politics. Today Turkey is in a similar situation and “needs to breathe,” Imamoglu said.

Imamoglu has also taken a stand for political transparency. He 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.

Imamoglu also broadcast regular press briefings throughout election night and in the days afterward, showing his persistence in fighting for a fair outcome to the vote.

Imamoglu’s conciliatory approach saw him publicly offer a hand of friendship to Yildirim, when both attended the commemoration of Ozal’s death. During a visit to the Grand Bazaar, Imamoglu hugged an AKP supporter who refused to shake his hand, underlining the difference between his kinder attitude to opponents and Erdogan’s authoritarianism.

He said after attending Ozal’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 Imamoglu, a practising Muslim who scheduled Friday prayers into his campaign. This probably will not stop the more extreme end of pro-government media claiming that Imamoglu is responsible for the cancelling of a religious book festival during Ramadan and similar events.

Erdogan and the AKP have attempted to suggest that Imamoglu is a lame duck leader because of the disputed vote. Imamoglu’s supporters made fun of this suggestion, with some even taking live ducks to his rallies.

As usual, wild commentary has been flowing from the imaginative brains of correspondents with news outlets such as Yeni Safak, whose commentator described Imamoglu’s win as a project of secretive powers. As Erdogan loses support among those affected by the 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 Erdogan 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 such as Imamoglu.

Imamoglu 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 the 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 the AKP.

Using the hashtag #herşeycokguzelolacak (#everythingwillbefine), social media users reiterated their support for Imamoglu after the decision to rerun the election. With the Istanbul municipal election 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.

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