Istanbul election: opposition banks on love to repeat shock win in re-run

Inclusive philosophy termed 'Radical Love' is a stark contrast to Erdogan party's combative stance

Ekrem Imamoglu, candidate of the secular opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, reaches out from his campaign bus to to kiss a young supporter following a rally in Istanbul, Friday, June 21, 2019, ahead of June 23 re-run of Istanbul elections.The 49-year-old candidate won the March 31 local elections with a slim majority, but after weeks of recounting requested by the ruling party, Turkey's electoral authority annulled the result of the vote, revoked his mandate and ordered the new election.(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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Millions of Turks head to the polls on Sunday for the controversial re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election that previously witnessed a surprise win for a little-known opposition figure.

Ekrem Imamoglu’s mandate was cancelled after just 18 days following his slender win in the March 31 race that saw him defy the odds against a political heavyweight from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The only chance for this country is love.

Previously a mayor for one of city’s 39 districts, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) member was unheard of in mainstream politics until his selection as candidate by an alliance of opposition parties.

However, his personable style in a campaign that sought to embrace Istanbul residents from all backgrounds, rather than focusing on the CHP’s traditional secularist core, saw him finish about 13,700 votes ahead of his opponent, former AKP prime minister Binali Yildirim.

The result’s annulment on the grounds that some election officials were not civil servants as legally required – widely seen as an unjust decision made under pressure from the AKP – led to a second spate of campaigning that opinion polls show has increased Mr Imamoglu's lead.

Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu addresses his supporters during an election rally in Istanbul, Turkey, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir
Ekrem Imamoglu addresses a rally on June 21, 2019, two days before a re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election. Reuters

At the heart of the campaign strategy is the philosophy of "Radical Love" that strives to be the antidote to the polarising politics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP and seeks to avoid confrontation with opponents.

The brainchild of CHP campaign director Ates Ilyas Bassoy, the approach is outlined in the Book of Radical Love, a 52-page guide to winning the hearts and minds of voters from across the political and social spectrum.

“The main idea of Radical Love is to love the people who love Erdogan,” Mr Bassoy said. “In the past the CHP belittled Erdogan voters as betraying the country and voting for their own interests. Now we’ve changed our approach to understand AKP supporters.”

Adopted by CHP candidates for the March vote, Radical Love’s success was proclaimed when the party won four out of Turkey’s five largest cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, which the AKP and its predecessors had run for 25 years.

Istanbul has special significance as the country’s economic powerhouse – it accounts for about a third of Turkey’s GDP and the mayor controls a $8.8 billion budget – as well as being where Mr Erdogan broke into the spotlight as mayor in 1994.

So ingrained is the Radical Love philosophy in the CHP campaign that it played a large part in the selection of candidates, including Mr Imamoglu, 49.

"I have a character that believes that walls can be torn down with love; that this process can be turned in the opposite direction by using a language of love and respect while reaching out to the people," Mr Imamoglu told The National.

“This time love will win. Our rival is someone who previously won through quarrels but quarrels have not benefited this country. The only chance for this country is love.”

Necati Ozkan, who has worked alongside Mr Imamoglu for the past seven years, said focusing on individuals regardless of affiliation seemed a perfect fit for the devout Muslim in a party with a record of opposing religion in public life.

“As a close friend, it was not hard for me to find a way that was compatible with Mr Imamoglu,” Mr Ozkan said. “This campaign, with its use of authentic language, came from his personality.

“In the first election, we established a language that hadn’t been used before and that the ruling party could not copy. We decided not to react to them and not engage with them but to focus on the problems of Istanbul and its people.”

Slogans such as “Everything will be fine” and “If there is Imamoglu, there is hope”, struck a chord with many Istanbul voters and soon spread across social media – another central plank of a campaign starved of access to the largely government-controlled mainstream media.

“I knew Mr Imamoglu before he entered politics and he was the same person back then, so it was easy for him to carry out this campaign because it’s in line with his character,” said Mr Bassoy, who first successfully tested the strategy for the CHP in Antalya in 2009.

Binali Yildirim, Istanbul mayoral candidate of the ruling AK Party (AKP), poses for a selfie with his supporters during an election rally in Istanbul, Turkey, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Binali Yildirim, Istanbul mayoral candidate of the ruling AK Party, poses for a selfie with supporters at a campaign rally on June 21, 2019. Reuters

While trying to embrace AKP supporters, the CHP has avoided responding to attacks from Mr Erdogan and his ministers, who have sought to portray Mr Imamoglu as a supporter of terrorism and an ethnic Greek while targeting him with legal threats.

This, coupled with the cancellation of the first vote, has allowed Mr Imamoglu to focus on the injustice of the election re-run.

“Why should I talk to Mr Erdogan?” he said. “We are not in the same environment, we are not in the same domain. I ignore him when he, in order to gain ground in Istanbul, talks about me and makes me a target.”

He added: “I tell voters that while I suffered an injustice, in reality the 16 million people of Istanbul suffered a greater injustice.”