Ekrem İmamoğlu: the impulsive Istanbul mayor hoping to face Erdoğan

The Mayor of Istanbul was plucked from obscurity barely four years ago. He could soon be Turkey’s most powerful man
Ekrem İmamoğlu, Mayor of Istanbul, could face Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in this year’s presidential election

At the time of Turkey’s last general election in 2018, few people outside of an obscure suburb to the west of Istanbul had heard of Ekrem İmamoğlu.

He’s a native of Trabzon – a Black Sea port town where political loyalties generally do not lie with the centre-left CHP – and was picked by party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to contest the mayoralty of Beylikdüzü.

He won that seat from the governing AK Party in 2014 – quite an achievement in local elections marred by fraud allegations nationwide – but even then, a giant leap to the Istanbul mayoralty was unthinkable.

And yet it happened.

He was selected, again by Kılıçdaroğlu, ahead of better-known, more seasoned candidates for the CHP’s fourth successive attempt to wrest control of Turkey’s largest city away from the AK Party.

He ended up defeating former prime minister Binali Yıldırım twice, the second round by a far greater margin after the first was annulled in dubious circumstances.

İmamoğlu’s political parents Meral Akşener (left) and Kemal Kılıcdaroğlu (right)

İmamoğlu owes his triumph to multiple factors.

A big one is Kılıçdaroğlu, certainly, but also the support of Meral Akşener, another party leader who recognised opposition movements of different stripes need to unite if they are to break the AK Party’s hegemony.

A further factor is İmamoğlu’s story: a religious man who can recite prayers in Arabic, he doesn’t fit the mould of the stereotypical rakı-quaffing, secularist CHP politician that many Turkish conservatives decry.

Yet his wife does not sport of a headscarf, making him electable even among the staunchest members of Atatürk’s party.

His charisma and youth are lauded among voters desperate for a change from the tired old men of Turkish politics.

He’s shown a capacity to learn from predecessors’ mistakes: his management of the 2019 election nights, with frequent televised appearances to reassure his supporters when the official results feed appeared to dry up, was exemplary.

And he can point to a record of policies and projects in office: new metro lines, low-cost canteens, subsidies for students and new public libraries.

With Dilek İmamoğlu, who would become first lady

It helped to demonstrate a CHP politician can get things done and deliver projects to serve voters’ interests rather than immediately advance his own.

A shoe-in as the opposition’s candidate for president, surely? Two broad criticisms give pause for thought.

The first is his relative lack of experience: he is 52, and wasn’t in elected office even a decade ago. Sympathetic detractors say his talents are clear, but require to be honed before transitioning to national politics.

Those detractors, both within the CHP and the wider opposition movement, believe he should give way to an older pair of hands like Kılıçdaroğlu or Mansur Yavaş, the mayor of Ankara.

The second criticism of İmamoğlu is his temperament. He is a politician who often operates on impulse, not calculation, and will often immediately say what he thinks.

It is a rare quality among Turkey’s staid politics and has found him many admirers, but it has also landed him into trouble.

One awkward outcome of an İmamoğlu presidential triumph: his party would lose control of Istanbul

He was startlingly blunt with his own supporters after they criticised him for including a formerly pro-government journalist on a delegation to his native Trabzon.

“They come and they go,” he said, using a Turkish idiom that carries belittling connotations. “I don’t care in the slightest.”

And he used the word “idiots” to describe officials who overturned his first election victory in 2019, which is how a lower court ended up convicting him and provisionally banning him from politics in December 2022.

That case is still active and will likely proceed in the first half of 2023.

Behaviour like this, his critics contend, show he does not yet have the maturity for national politics. His supporters, meanwhile, say it is time to shake things up.

There’s every chance an attempt to ban him from politics will be rushed through the courts to end his mayoralty and ensure he can’t register as a presidential candidate. That would probably only aid his popularity.

One thing is certain: Ekrem İmamoğlu is one of the most influential politicians in Turkey today.

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