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Is Imamoglu a strong candidate for the Turkish presidential election?

February 1, 2022 at 4:01 pm

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu speaks to press members at Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Building in Sarachane district of Istanbul, Turkey on 28 June, 2019 [Arif Hüdaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency]

Since the municipal elections in Turkey in 2019, the name of the Mayor of Greater Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, has been proposed as a possible and even strong candidate for the presidential election next year. He was successful in winning the most important and largest municipality in the country, which includes about one-fifth of the population, but can he live up to the slogan, “Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey, and whoever loses it loses Turkey”?

Imamoglu is following in the footsteps of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The current President of Turkey was mayor of Greater Istanbul in the nineties before he established the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and went on to become prime minister and then president.

Imamoglu’s name has been suggested more than once as a possible candidate for the opposition in the 2023 presidential election, especially by the Good Party, the Republican People Party’s partner in the opposition coalition, because he possesses some of the necessary characteristics of a broad, opposition candidate. He is a member of the Republican People’s Party, but not on the hard-line secular side, so he will not clash with conservative voters, but intends to portray himself as “the son of a conservative family”. He also has good relations with the Peoples’ Democratic Party, which is inclined towards Kurdish nationalism.

So is Ekrem Imamoglu the strongest candidate to compete against and beat Erdogan in the election?

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Well, we should remember that history does not always repeat itself. While Erdogan entered national politics and leadership through the municipality door, this does not mean that such a path can be repeated, as the context and circumstances are different. Moreover, Erdogan was a politician and a leader by nature; he was involved in political work from when he was young, so being mayor was just one stage in his political career, not his sole ambition responsible for his later success with the people rallying behind him.

Furthermore, it is important to view the results of Istanbul’s 2019 municipal elections as a loss for the AK Party rather than a victory for Imamoglu. The vote was clearly punitive for the ruling party, due to the dismissal of the former mayor, Kadir Topbas and the municipal administration after him, some government policies, candidate Binali Yildirim, and finally the insistence on re-voting on the pretext that the opposition “stole our votes”.

From the beginning, Imamoglu has been an executive who succeeded in a sub-municipality in Istanbul (Beylikduzu neighbourhood) and was not planning a brilliant political future, especially at presidential level. Moreover, his performance after two and a half years as mayor does not suggest remarkable success or superior abilities. Rather, the latest snowstorm showed him to be a leader who failed to take the necessary measures ahead of the storm, address its effects and carry out his duties. Moreover, the mayor looked remarkably reckless when, at the height of the storm and the suffering of the citizens, he had dinner with the British ambassador for three hours, and then justified it by saying that the meeting was no less important than the crisis, and claiming that everything went well that night, which not many agree with.

Imamoglu argues that he is being fought by the president, that the government is not cooperating with him and that the budgets are not enough. He provides other excuses but, regardless of the government’s responses via Erdogan himself, some writers reminded him that Erdogan succeeded in making his name shine in much more difficult circumstances than the current situation.

President of Turkey in Trabzon, Turkiye on 30 January 2022 [Mustafa Kamacı/Anadolu Agency]

President of Turkey in Trabzon, Turkiye on 30 January 2022 [Mustafa Kamacı/Anadolu Agency]

Perhaps one of the most important obstacles to Imamoglu’s candidacy is the lack of approval from his party, or rather the head of his party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, as he decides on the matter according to the law governing political parties as well as customary practice in Turkey. According to what has been said, Kilicdaroglu does not want his party to lose the Istanbul mayor’s position to the AK Party, and Imamoglu will have to resign if he is to be a candidate in the presidential election. The AK Party has the majority on the municipal council in Istanbul and so will be its next head; the opposition party may not find a better candidate than Imamoglu to run in the next municipal elections. It is also possible that Kilicdaroglu wants to run for the presidency himself, not least because the opposition’s electoral chances this time are much better than on previous occasions.

Opinion polls give figures such as Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and former President Abdullah Gul better chances of success than Imamoglu. External support is important, which explains in part his keenness to meet Western ambassadors, even though he has no direct working relationship with them. Aside from his dinner with the British ambassador, he has also met with the US ambassador, who assumed his duties just a few days ago.

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Nevertheless, anyone familiar with Turkish politics and who understands the dynamics of elections knows that the external factor is very marginal. It is true that it may influence the decisions made by parties and the opposition, and possibly determine the name of the candidate, but its impact on the final result is very limited. This has been proven in more than one election in the past few years.

None of this, of course, means that it is impossible for Imamoglu to run as a presidential candidate. Rather, it suggests that he is an unrealistic option according to the current data, even if some try to impose his candidacy; his chances of winning are not as great as some people claim.

However, it is still too early to be certain about the election, which will be the most difficult for Erdogan and the AK Party since its establishment in 2001, as it is difficult to predict accurately until the final alliances develop shortly before polling day. We will have to see if the opposition groups can select one candidate unanimously to represent them all. That is the challenge that they face. It won’t be easy.

This article appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 31 January 2022

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.