Erdogan critic Imamoglu faces fierce fight for re-election as Istanbul mayor

Vote in Turkey's largest city seen as having far-reaching consequences for country's politics

Istanbul's mayor Ekrem Imamoglu at a campaign event ahead of the local elections in Istanbul, Turkey. Reuters
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As Turkey prepares for local elections this Sunday, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu addressed crowds packed into a small square in the city’s working-class Kasimpasa neighbourhood.

“Leader again! My leader is here,” shouted members of the crowd, wrapped up against the cold in scarves and hats. Against a backdrop of political party flags, many queued afterwards for free meals distributed from a van.

There is fierce competition for the position of the mayor of Istanbul, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 70, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are determined to win back after losing it to Mr Imamoglu, 52, and the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the last local elections in 2019.

The mayor of Istanbul has one of the most important roles in Turkey, responsible for the country’s cultural and financial centre and a multibillion-dollar budget.

In recent weeks, there has been a slate of new museum, park, and metro line openings, and promotional banners promising firmer action on everything from bus services to combating domestic violence plaster every public space.

Mr Imamoglu, who is running for a second term, and the AKP’s candidate, former government minister Murat Kurum, are competing to claim responsibility for improving services for the urban centre’s 16 million residents, at a time of double-digit inflation and widespread economic hardship.

Istanbul’s importance means that whoever runs the city can establish a significant power base, observers say. If Mr Imamoglu is re-elected as mayor, he may well run in Turkey’s next presidential election scheduled for 2028.

“The person that rules Istanbul is generally able to establish himself a political base, which then translates into power at the national scale,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and director of Edam, an Istanbul-based think tank.

The vote has consequences on the national level for whoever wins. Yet both the mayoral candidates and those competing for smaller, local district municipalities are campaigning on local issues.

In the Fatih district, which includes Istanbul’s tourist-packed historical peninsula, CHP candidate Mahir Polat has pledged to build more earthquake-resistant homes and renovate a local bazaar.

“So far, we have been carrying out an election campaign that is unconventional but very simple, focusing only on local government problems in Fatih,” said Mr Polat, at an interview in his campaign office last week.

“This has had a serious impact, in contrast with the AKP’s policies, which no longer give society much hope.”

The National approached Mr Polat’s main competitor from the AKP for an interview but did not receive a response.

For the position of Istanbul mayor, Mr Kurum and Mr Imamoglu are almost neck and neck in pollsters’ predictions, and few are willing to call the vote for Istanbul publicly.

The electorate is polarised and an increasing number of disillusioned young people are disengaging from the vote in a country where politics is almost a national sport, observers say.

“The problem of young voters usually, unfortunately, in today's Turkey is that they either go far left or far right, or they are disinterested in politics,” said Gulsen Ergun, a board member of Vote and Beyond, a civil society group encouraging participation in democratic processes.

Voters in Istanbul cite high levels of immigration, traffic congestion and fears that the city is not prepared for a long-predicted major earthquake as their main concerns.

Among issues is western nations funding refugee aid programmes in Turkey to stop them crossing into Europe.

“They [refugees] get free medicine and free aid. Now we can’t even buy an aspirin from the pharmacy if we don’t have money,” said Tuna Ozturk, who attended Mr Imamoglu’s Kasimpasa rally.

Her fears reflect widespread beliefs in Turkey – rarely grounded in truth – that refugees receive better services from authorities than Turkish citizens.

Devotees of Mr Erdogan and the AKP are not happy either. Voters at a rally held by Mr Kurum and Mr Erdogan at Istanbul’s former airport complex at the weekend said they had been left disappointed by five years of opposition rule in the city.

“I will vote for Murat Kurum because I believe he is going to work hard,” said Dorsun Ergun, 51, a leatherworker from Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district. “The current mayor [Imamoglu] does not work, and he did not keep his promises to us.”

Both candidates face a range of challenges. Mr Imamoglu is part of a divided national opposition to Mr Erdogan and the AKP.

Other parties including the pro-Kurdish DEM Party and the nationalist Good Party are fielding their own candidates in the mayoral election, which may split the anti-AKP vote and lessen Mr Imamoglu's chances at re-election.

Meanwhile, Mr Kurum may suffer from disillusioned AKP voters switching to more conservative parties such as the Islamist New Welfare Party.

He has also faced criticism during the campaign for lacking charisma, and has made gaffes during media interviews, such as admitting to driving a car without a licence.

“What might hurt the AKP is that Erdogan is not on the ballot – he has a unique ability to mobilise people,” said Orcun Selcuk, a political scientist.

“If the opposition loses in Istanbul, it’s because of its fragmentation. If Kurum loses, it could also be because of the New Welfare Party candidate.”

For an election in which he is not even running, Mr Erdogan has campaigned almost non-stop for weeks, addressing rallies across Turkey.

Mr Erdogan attracted attention earlier this month when he claimed that Sunday’s vote will be the last election he will witness as President – suggesting that he will retire from politics within the next five years.

According to the Turkish constitution, a president cannot run for more than two terms, although a loophole allows a third if parliament calls for elections.

The hint at his political career coming to an end may have been a strategy to try to encourage AKP voters to come out to the polls, at a time when it remains unclear who will lead the party when Mr Erdogan eventually steps away from politics.

The President, rather than mayoral candidate Mr Kurum, appeared to be the main draw for many at the AKP’s weekend rally.

“We will stand by President Erdogan until the end; we know that he stands with us, not just today, but always,” said Aisha Koc, 44, a public relations worker. “In other places it’s the case that the people follow their leader, but here he follows us. He does what we want of him.”

Sinan Ulgen, the Turkish analyst, thinks it unlikely that Istanbul will witness a repeat of 2019’s local elections vote, when the AKP disputed Imamoglu’s win at the ballot boxes. That prompted a second round of voting in which Imamoglu won again – with a larger margin.

“I don’t think we will see this again,” Mr Ulgen said. “That mistake was made once.”

Additional reporting by Kerem Yalciner

Updated: March 26, 2024, 1:11 PM