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Imamoglu, the Turkish mayor following in Erdogan's footsteps

3 min

Newly re-elected Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has emerged as the main challenger to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's reign. But in some ways, he is following in the footsteps of the Turkish leader who ran the city in the 1990s. 

Ekrem Imamoglu © Mena Today 

Newly re-elected Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has emerged as the main challenger to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's reign. But in some ways, he is following in the footsteps of the Turkish leader who ran the city in the 1990s. 

Aside from having led the country's biggest city, both have family roots in the eastern Black Sea region and both their political careers have been impeded by Turkey's courts. In their youth, both were keen footballers too.

After clinching a resounding victory and retaining his post in Sunday's mayoral elections, Imamoglu, 53, is now a potential future president in the view of many analysts. 

Voters sent a message directly to Erdogan, Imamoglu said after the election. "Those who do not understand the nation's message will eventually lose".

But while they share a strong ability to appeal to voters, they diverge when it comes to politics. Imamoglu, an affable former businessman, himself has said: "our ideas are largely opposite".

Erdogan entered politics with an Islamist party and has reshaped the secular state with his pious vision since taking the reins in 2002. In contrast, Imamoglu is from the staunchly secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), joining in 2008 and becoming its mayor in Istanbul's Beylikduzu district 10 years ago. 

Imamoglu's success is due to his ability to break through the social democratic CHP's ceiling of some 25% support in Turkey and appeal to more conservative voters.

He proved that in 2019, delivering Erdogan's AK Party (AKP) its biggest defeat in two decades and beating its candidate not once but twice. A court annulled his March victory that year only for him to win by a larger margin in a re-run election in June.

Erdogan bounced back to win re-election as president last year despite widespread economic strains, defying many polls. But Imamoglu has now struck a new blow for the opposition.

"This is more than a mayoral election, it is consigning a mentality to history," Imamoglu said during campaigning. "If it is consigned to history, democracy will revive...and law and justice will recover."

Erdogan's critics say Turkey's judiciary, civil rights and press freedoms have been eroded under his watch, charges the government denies.

MAGISTRATES AND MEATBALLS

Imamoglu himself has faced judicial woes.

After his 2019 win, a judge sentenced him to 2-1/2 years in prison, imposing a political ban for insulting public officials. The appeals court is yet to rule on the case.

The conviction echoed the experience of Erdogan, who was briefly jailed in 1999 for reciting a poem that a court ruled was an incitement to religious hatred.

Last year, another court opened a case against Imamoglu on a charge of tender rigging that carries a sentence of three to seven years. Erdogan's critics see the cases as an attempt to hinder Imamoglu politically. Erdogan and his AKP deny this.

Despite what he describes as obstacles from Ankara, Imamoglu said his administration has delivered services and development in Istanbul, a city of 16 million that drives Turkey's economy.

The metropolis is a world away from the Black Sea province of Trabzon where Imamoglu was born in 1970 and spent what he describes as a happy childhood amid its "lush green nature, rough sea and stone streets".

He studied at Istanbul University and graduated in business administration in 1994, the year Erdogan became mayor, before going into his family's construction business. He is married and has three children.

Sunday's victory contrasted with 2019. He was backed then by an opposition alliance that collapsed last year after the general election defeat. He said his support this time came from "a strong alliance of conscience, established by millions thirsty for democracy and justice."

Many analysts now forecast further success for Imamoglu.

"(If) this election is not cancelled by objections in some way, he will become the president in 2028," Ozer Sencar, head of pollster Metropoll, told Reuters before the election.

Rivalry between Imamoglu and Erdogan may heat up on the national stage in years to come, but the mayor recently recalled the more mundane setting where they first crossed paths.

In the mid-1990s after Erdogan became mayor, he visited the meatball restaurant that the young Imamoglu was running in Istanbul's Gungoren district.

"When he was in his first months as mayor I hosted him," Imamoglu said. "He ate meatballs in my restaurant. I didn't take his money. He won't pay that bill as long as he lives." 

By Daren Butler

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