It’s been 25 years since Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the Istanbul mayoral election. “Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey,” is a phrase he coined in the meantime – and consequently proved to be true as shown from his own ascent to the presidency. So there was a considerable amount at stake for the whole of Turkey during Sunday’s re-run of March’s annulled mayoral elections.
Erdogan’s candidate Binali Yildirim lost to opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu by nearly 800,000 votes – a humiliating margin of 10 points; and was significant because at the 31 March local election won by Imamoglu, the margin between the two candidates was just over 13,000 votes.
Only three months ago Imamoglu was a complete no name in Turkey. He was the mayor of a small Istanbul district before being picked up as the candidate of the Nation Alliance, comprised of the centre-left CHP (Republican People’s Party) and conservative nationalist Iyi Parti.
His rival Yildirim, as the candidate of the People’s Alliance formed by Erdogan’s governing AKP (Justice and Development Party) and the ultra nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), had served as a transport minister, and even prime minister under the president. When the campaign began early this year Yildirim’s status meant he was streets ahead.
But Imamoglu was to go on to run one of most successful election campaigns in Turkish political history, with an incredibly simple slogan: “I will become the mayor of the 16 million living in Istanbul.” He tirelessly stressed his inclusiveness and tried to reach out to all segments of the society regardless of their ethnicity, beliefs, social status, gender and age.
The way he put his focus on the young won the hearts and minds of much of the electorate, gathering a huge following even in areas of Istanbul that were seen as AKP strongholds. He connected with young people by promising a better life for them, giving them hope for the future. In fact, his famous election motto, “Her şey çok güzel olacak” (Everything will be very nice) was coined by a 17 year old.
And despite the highly divided political landscape of Turkey, he managed to build bridges with the two million strong Kurdish population of the city. The support of Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned leader of left-wing Kurdish party HDP (People’s Democratic Turkey), played a critical role in galvanising them to get out and vote.
Imamoglu’s short time in office – only 18 days – also showed a willingness to work for the city’s poor. In the two and a half weeks that he served as mayor before the re-run of the elections, he was able to show that the city’s vast financial resources could be used more effectively for the poor and disadvantaged. He now promises bottom-up social development programmes, with women as the forefront of the process.
But it was the annulment of the first vote that caught the imagination of the most voters. Its invalidation by the Supreme Election Board as a result of political pressure from Erdogan’s AKP was terrible for the party’s image. Even in the eyes of many AKP supporters, the injustice was unacceptable. In light of this, Imamoglu’s pledge to uproot corruption, nepotism and the wasting of public funds was always going to be a winner for him.
Yet Imamoglu fought against a rival who was able to use all of the state’s resources. Erdogan controls much of the country’s media – and yet he still won. He faced many dirty political tricks; including the questioning of his “Turkishness” because of his ancestral connection with the city of Trabzon formerly of the Greek Pontus region (now in the east of Turkey on the Black Sea coast). Yet Imamoglu managed to bat off these attempts at demeaning his character with his clear message – I will serve all in Istanbul.
Today’s papers – the government-controlled media – claim that the emphatic win was a victory for democracy, in a sorry attempt to co-opt Imamoglu’s victory to legitimise Erdogan’s authority. But they are right that the result was a victory, just not for them. Democracy won because of Imamoglu and his supporters’ passion for justice in the face of AKP meddling. Democracy won because of leaders like Demirtas who have sacrificed their freedom for the country’s democratic future.
The Istanbul mayoral elections 25 years ago paved the way for Erdogan to become the president of the country today. The elections of 23 June 2019 might just do the same for Imamoglu in 2023.
Alpaslan Ozerdem is a professor of Peacebuilding at Coventry University
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