Turkey’s Erdoğan sees himself in new Istanbul mayor

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu seem like polar opposites, but Turkey’s two most prominent politicians have a great deal in common.

Erdoğan of the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) is a populist Islamist who has amassed more power than any Turkish leader since the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and has attracted considerable criticism at home and abroad for perceived authoritarianism and violations of the rule of law. 

İmamoğlu of the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is progressive-minded and won last year’s elections on a campaign of love and unity that has been widely touted as the antidote to Erdoğan-style populism.  

“The era of partisanship is over,” he said after his June victory. “The era of law and fairness has begun.”

Yet both hail from modest families originally from Turkey’s Black Sea region. Both embrace their religious identity and were in their 40s and running as underdogs in their first nationally meaningful political contest when they were elected Istanbul mayor.

Erdoğan, Istanbul mayor from 1994 to 1998, won an Istanbul parliamentary seat in 1991, but was blocked from taking office. İmamoğlu previously served as mayor of Beylikdüzü, an outlying Istanbul district along the Sea of Marmara.

“There are a lot of similarities between the two,” Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, told Ahval in a podcast. “İmamoğlu is really doing very well so far.”

Though İmamoğlu has only been mayor for seven months, his actions thus far suggest the two took remarkably similar approaches to the job. However unlikely it may sound today, Erdoğan acted much like a progressive in his stint as mayor. The future president built advanced recycling facilities, added environmentally friendly buses and curbed traffic and pollution with dozens of new bridges and highways and increased use of natural gas.

Days after his landslide victory in June, İmamoğlu declared Istanbul traffic his number one priority. He has since extended public transport operations to 24 hours and resumed construction of a major new metro line.

Mayor Erdoğan took a stand against corruption, implementing new regulations to ensure proper use of city funds, and against an environmentally questionable megaproject, arguing that a proposed third bridge across the Bosporus, which he would later build, would murder the city.

One of İmamoğlu’s first acts after taking office was exposing mismanagement and corruption under the previous AKP administration, such as the millions wasted on more than 1,200 unnecessary city vehicles and large sums funnelled to charities linked to the president. Echoing his predecessor, İmamoğlu has described Erdoğan’s proposed $15-billion canal linking the Black and Marmara seas as a betrayal of the city.

Much like İmamoğlu today, early in his political career Erdoğan was known for integrity and courage. This willingness to stand up to the crooked is highlighted in his party’s name, the Turkish word “ak” means “white” or “pure.” Prominent Turkish journalist Ahmet Altan, who today is in jail on charges of coup plotting, once wrote of Erdoğan’s early years: “People supported you because you were honest and brave.”

Mayor Erdoğan found some success on the international stage, including organising a roundtable of mayors at the 1996 Habitat II conference in Istanbul that led to a global mayoral movement. During a November visit to London, İmamoğlu achieved a strong rapport with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and attracted $130 million in infrastructure financing from Deutsche Bank. 

Few were surprised, then, when the latest MetroPoll survey put the current mayor just behind the 1990s mayor as Turkey’s most popular politician, with Erdoğan at 50.2 percent approval and İmamoğlu at 48.6 percent.

“Erdoğan realised that İmamoğlu is representing Erdoğan’s early years in Istanbul municipality,” said Dündar. “That’s why he’s so scared - because he knows very well the end of the story.”

Erdoğan’s government has shown a willingness to bend the law to deal with successful political opponents. Since last year’s local elections, more than 30 mayors from the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been dismissed from office on questionable terrorism charges.

Last month, the government dismissed a CHP mayor for the first time, İbrahim Burak Oğuz of Izmir’s Urla district, and many observers have wondered if İmamoğlu might be next. Yet it was a 1999 stint in jail that is widely believed to have turned Erdoğan into a national hero, so the president may be wary of giving similar treatment to his emerging rival.

“If Erdoğan insists on this cruel strategy I guess he would be helping İmamoğlu be more popular,” said Dündar.

Erdoğan has never lost an election, but many believe he made a political blunder in ordering a rerun of the Istanbul mayoral vote after İmamoğlu won the March election by 13,000 votes. Yet İmamoğlu won the June election by some 800,000 votes and emerged appearing as the victim of unfair persecution.

Despite climbing out of last year’s recession, Turkey’s economy remains mired in crisis. Dündar pointed to the fallout from the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the AKP came to power in 2002, during which millions of people took to the streets to denounce Erdoğan. Dündar said the government brutally smashed the budding movement, and has since used aggressive tactics in the streets and the courts to keep a lid on dissent.

“Turkey is really fed up with this aggression and it needs peace. İmamoğlu realises this and he represents peace,” said Dündar. “He has a real chance to challenge Erdoğan in the next presidential elections.”

Turkey has no elections scheduled until November 2023, the country’s centennial. Erdoğan has long viewed 2023 as a sort of coronation, the year he would preside over Turkey celebrating 100 years as he marked two decades in power. Now the possibility looms that the centennial could complete the rise of İmamoğlu and mark the return to power of the CHP, the party of Atatürk.

Some believe Erdoğan will do everything in his power to still be in office for the centennial. Others argue that the president may want to get a jump on the emerging political threats, from İmamoğlu as well as from new parties led by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former economic czar Ali Babacan, by calling for early elections.

“There are really a lot of signs that the government doesn’t feel itself in safety,” said Dündar, who expects Erdoğan to call for an early vote this year or next. “He wants to stop this climb of İmamoğlu. He’s clever enough to deal with this challenge.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.