Imamoglu, 49, was little known in Turkey before announcing his candidacy in Istanbul’s mayoral election on Sunday. But this all changed after he managed to wrest control of the country’s wealthiest city from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power there for more than 15 years.
A candidate for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Good Party (Iyi), Imamoglu won the race by around 25,000 votes, according to official results on Tuesday. The outcome of a recount on Thursday looked likely to confirm Imamoglu as the winner. A narrow victory, but none the less a significant one, given his opponent: Binali Yildirim.
The 63-year-old Yildirim is a senior official with the AKP and longtime supporter of Erdogan, for whom he served as prime minister from 2016 until 2018. Because of his stature, Yildirim was considered a favourite to win Istanbul’s coveted City Hall. Erdogan threw the full weight of his support behind his candidacy, even going so far as to suggest that the country’s survival was at stake. In the run-up to the vote, the president gave at least 14 speeches in two days in Istanbul. Add to this the flurry of news coverage by AKP-owned media outlets, and Yildirim appeared to be a shoo-in.
His victory was seen as such a foregone conclusion that large posters of Yildirim and Erdogan with the words “Thank you Istanbul” appeared in the city overnight on Sunday, before all the votes were counted.
They were taken down in the morning, as it became clear that the race was much tighter than expected.
Levelling the playing field
Imamoglu knew going into the race that he was the underdog. But he viewed his relative political obscurity as an “advantage”.
“Society has recently put a wall up around well-known political figures,” he told AFP in March.
To level the playing field, Imamoglu used whatever resources were at his disposal.
“We’ve got social media, which have been left alone [by the government] for the time being,” he said. “Right now my biggest weapon on the ground is an 1,000-year-old communication strategy of word of mouth.”
While Yildirim could point to his long years of government service, Imamoglu vaunted his record as a trusted local politician. An alumnus of the University of Istanbul, where he studied business administration, he worked for his family’s construction company before becoming mayor of the middle-class Beylikdüzü district as a CHP candidate in 2014.
Building on his reputation as someone willing to work across political lines, Imamoglu campaigned on a message of unity with the slogan “Your Istanbul”. He further impressed voters on a recent trip to the Grand Bazaar, during which he hugged an elderly AKP supporter who had refused to shake his hand. In a deeply divided Turkey, Imamoglu’s act of kindness towards a member of the opposing party stood out in stark contrast to Erdogan’s own harsher rhetoric.
In his victory speech on Tuesday, Imamoglu pledged to be a mayor for all, including those who did not vote for him.
Imamoglu for president in 2023?
In winning the mayoral race, Imamoglu has become one of the most visible faces of the opposition to Erdogan. His improbable victory has even given rise to rumblings of a possible future on the national stage.
It would not be the first time Istanbul’s City Hall has been used as a springboard. Erdogan launched his own national career after serving as the city’s mayor from 1994 until 1998. “To win Istanbul is to win Turkey,” the Turkish president has said in the past.
It is no secret that Erdogan hopes to win re-election in 2023 for the centenary of the Republic of Turkey. Yet it remains to be seen whether Imamoglu’s recent electoral victory has positioned him to “win Turkey” four years from now.
“The mayor of Istanbul can be a national springboard, but that’s not always necessarily the case,” Guillaume Perrier, FRANCE 24’s former Turkey correspondent and the author of “Inside Erdogan’s Head”, said.
Perrier stressed that it is too early to speculate about Imamoglu’s political future, warning that it is dependent on the CHP’s ability to successfully run a national campaign.
“For the last 15 years, (it) has been a ‘losing machine’. For the time being, it’s not a credible alternative to Erdogan. The key is to unite all of the opposition parties, including the Kurds, which is far from being done,” he said.
Still, Imamoglu poses enough of a threat that pro-AKP media accused him of staging an “electoral coup” the day after he was declared winner of Istanbul’s mayoral race.