Istanbul's ambitious mayor deals a new blow to Erdogan

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu first defeated Erdogan's ruling party in the hotly contested 2019 vote (YASIN AKGUL)
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu first defeated Erdogan's ruling party in the hotly contested 2019 vote (YASIN AKGUL)

Ekrem Imamoglu's second victory in an Istanbul city election on Sunday cemented his standing as Turkey's top opposition leader in a new blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party.

The football-loving 52-year-old, who first became the mega-city's mayor in 2019, again defeated Erdogan's chosen candidate in the country's economic powerhouse despite a concerted effort to unseat him by the veteran president.

Sunday's election took place with rampant inflation and a massive devaluation of the lira currency weighing on many households.

"This country doesn't deserve poverty," Imamoglu said in January as he campaigned for a new term, turning his fire against Erdogan.

With inflation above 65 percent, Immamoglu said that Erdogan had "turned the rules of economics upside down".

In 2019, Imamoglu ended 25 years of rule by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its allies in the city of 16 million.

The smooth-talking opposition figure was initially stripped of his victory when the vote was controversially annulled. But he won by an even bigger margin when a re-run was held three months later.

Since then, the Republican People's Party (CHP) figurehead has faced legal troubles.

An Istanbul court ruled in 2023 that an Imamoglu remark to reporters that city election officials were "idiots" was defamatory and sentenced him to nearly three years in jail.

It barred him from politics for the duration of the sentence.

Imamoglu has appealed, meaning that he has continued to serve as mayor while putting his fate in the hands of judges whose impartially he questioned.

In Sunday's election, Imamoglu ran as the CHP candidate as he failed to get Turkey's fractured opposition parties to rally around his bid. But the size of his victory will also have stunned other parties.

- 'Hope' -

Imamoglu's rise from local Istanbul district leader to mayor came in an anti-Erdogan wave that allowed opposition parties to take power in Turkey's major cities -- including the capital, Ankara.

Some voters rebelled against sweeping purges that followed a failed putsch in 2016. Others were disillusioned by an economic crisis.

A new generation of leaders from the staunchly secular CHP, including Imamoglu in Istanbul and Mansur Yavas in Ankara, offered a clear alternative to Erdogan's Islamic-rooted AKP.

Since Erdogan won a new term in last year's presidential election, Imamoglu has challenged the leadership of his CHP, calling for change after former leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was defeated.

Imamoglu is now seen as the most likely potential candidate to beat any candidate from Erdogan's party in the 2028 presidential election.

As Erdogan has shown, running Istanbul has often proved the path to national power.

Aylin Unver Noi, professor at Istanbul's Halic University, told AFP that the winner in Istanbul, with its population of 16 million people, will be able to move confidently into new elections.

Noi said Imamoglu could challenge for the CHP leadership and from there become its presidential candidate for 2028.

"It is not easy to manage Istanbul," said Noi.

"We are talking about a city larger than 20 European Union countries. It is both a commercial hub, a financial center and a cultural center. It's like a country. It is a city with a very large budget. Those who manage to run this city prove themselves and reach a certain place in their political career."

"Imamoglu is an effective political operator and at this point in time represents one of the very few glimmers of hope for constituents who oppose Erdogan and the AKP," Anthony Skinner, director of research at geopolitical advisory firm Marlow Global, told AFP.

The Istanbul mayor has crafted a media image and run viral social media campaigns, that both raised his profile and got on the nerves of many voters.

State media, meanwhile, turned him into a hate figure.

His troubles were compounded by Erdogan taking credit for many of the important projects that have modernised Istanbul over recent years.

- Missteps -

Imamoglu has never hidden his presidential ambitions.

He studied business administration at Istanbul University and completed a masters degree in management before entering his family's construction business.

His love of football pushed him to become an administrator with his hometown team in the Black Sea port of Trabzon in northeast Turkey.

He joined the main opposition party and was elected mayor of the up-and-coming Beylikduzu district on the European side of Istanbul in 2014.

In January 2022, pro-government media were awash with images taken by surveillance cameras of him having dinner with the British ambassador at a fish restaurant.

As Istanbul battled a snowstorm, the images played into the government's portrayal of the mayor as out-of-touch and Western-backed.