Ekrem Imamoglu: agent of change in Istanbul

Self-effacing nationalist and secularist has electrified Turkey’s demoralised opposition

On the campaign trail he became known for his mild-mannered demeanour. But as a bitter dispute rages over political control of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu has revealed a steely core. As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party continued its efforts to thwart his apparent victory, the opposition's mayoral challenger on Wednesday upped the ante.

He accused ruling party officials of “behaving as if they’ve had a toy taken away” and warned: “They must not make the 16 million people of Istanbul the victims of their internal score settling. The world is watching us, and watching this election.”

Both sides agree that preliminary results from Sunday’s vote give Imamoglu a wafer-thin lead of about 25,000 votes. But Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) has complained of irregularities and launched a formal challenge, setting the stage for a messy dispute.

Yet even if Imamoglu does not win, the self-effacing former district mayor has electrified Turkey’s demoralised opposition. By building political alliances and reaching across the country’s deep divides, analysts say he has shown that the ruling elite can be challenged in a city it has controlled for 25 years.


"This has already had the effect of energising the opposition," said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University. "They have gained the feeling that, if they work hard, and if they adopt reasonable strategies, they have a chance of replacing the government."

Imamoglu’s Republican People’s party (CHP) has struggled for years to make inroads. Seen as nationalist and militantly secularist, it is treated with suspicion among the country’s Kurdish minority and by religious conservatives who support the AKP. But the Istanbul candidate’s family background sets him apart from the stereotypes.

Black Sea region

Like Erdogan, his family hails from Turkey’s conservative Black Sea region. He grew up in small stone house above a stable where the family kept cows. His father, who ran a business selling construction materials, was active in rightwing parties. Imamoglu worked with one of them briefly. But he was introduced to left-wing politics at university and later joined the CHP. He has said that a stint as a party official was “an important education” in Turkey’s political divisions.

“I saw how much polarisation there was,” he said in an interview with Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper in December. “I was able to break that down, because we have all types in my family.”

In 2014, he was elected as the mayor of the Istanbul district of Beylikduzu, where he built parks and earned a reputation for good stewardship. That helped him win the nomination to run as mayor of the whole of Istanbul.

During the campaign, he struggled to get a fair hearing in a media landscape dominated by pro-government outlets. Echoing Erdogan’s harsh attacks on the opposition, they accused him of supporting terrorism.

To bypass them, he used social media to connect with AKP voters, whom he would affectionately call “auntie” or “uncle”.

"The other side ran a campaign based on fear, based on dividing people," said Suleyman Cebeci, a former MP who was part of his campaign team. "He did the exact opposite, creating a feeling of hope and brotherhood."

Koran reading

Imamoglu took care not to criticise Erdogan, who remains hugely popular among millions of Turks. The 49 year old, whose surname means “son of an imam”, also displayed the fruits of the religion classes he attended as a child.

At a memorial for victims of last month's mass shooting in New Zealand, he recited a passage from the Koran.

"That is something very uncommon for a CHP candidate to do," said Onur Erim, a former adviser to Melih Gokcek, who was AKP mayor of Ankara until 2017. "You haven't seen any CHP candidate for years – maybe ever – who showed this much affection to right-wingers, to conservatives, to religious people."

Imamoglu was helped by the deep economic problems that have followed last year’s currency crisis, with rising food prices and unemployment fuelling anger towards the government.

Another factor was the continuation of an opposition alliance that dates back to 2017. Across the country, rival parties agreed non-aggression pacts to maximise the chances of beating the AKP. For Imamoglu, the support of the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), whose predominately Kurdish supporters number more than one million in Istanbul, was critical.

"The result was only possible because of our support," said Azad Baris, an HDP vice-chairman who helped mobilise voters in Istanbul.

Imamoglu’s apparent triumph – combined with the opposition’s victory in the capital Ankara and several other big cities – has been met with jubilation among government opponents.

Many are already drawing inevitable comparisons with Erdogan, who was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and became prime minister nine years later.

Such analogies are premature, especially when his victory is not yet assured. But Imamoglu’s dogged response to the dispute showed he could be a fighter as well as a peacemaker.

Holding a photo of Erdogan’s own Istanbul victory celebrations a quarter of a century ago, when he and his party leader joined hands with the defeated opposition rival, he appealed directly to the Turkish president: “Twenty-five years later, is it so hard to hold up the hand of the winner?”– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019