Ekrem Imamoglu rocked Turkish politics with his shock mayoral victory in Istanbul in March. But after the first vote was annulled over apparent irregularities, he's running again. Opinion polls show that he's ahead.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan brought out one of his big guns to stand for mayor of Istanbul. Binali Yildirim, from Turkey's ruling Islamic-conservative Justice and Development (AKP) party, was born in the eastern Anatolian province of Erzincan and has the reputation of being a religious man. Alongside his political career, he built up a lucrative shipping company that is now run by his children.
Yildirim is a veteran of Turkish politics, and alongside Finance Minister Berat Albayrak — who's also the president's son-in-law — he's probably Erdogan's most important political ally.
The two AKP men have been close friends since the 1990s, and first met when Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul. Yildirim, a trained naval architect, was the board chairman of the city's ferry company, IDO. In 2002, Erdogan's AKP won the Turkish parliamentary elections; a few months later, Erdogan became prime minister and brought Yildirim into his inner circle. Yildirim was almost continuously in office as Turkey's minister of transport from then until 2016, when he took the next step up in his career as Erdogan made Yildirim his prime minister.
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Nothing could have demonstrated Yildirim's solidarity with the Turkish president more clearly than the 2017 referendum on the Turkish constitution. Yildirim campaigned strongly for the introduction of a presidential system, even though the new form of government he was championing meant his own position as prime minister would be abolished.
In local elections on March 31, Erdogan was intent on hanging onto the city of Istanbul by any means possible. Aware that the metropolis, with its 15 million inhabitants, is key to his political survival, he sent in his close ally. The governing AKP was so convinced it would win that, as the votes were being counted, it was already distributing posters showing Yildirim thanking the population for his victory.
Imamoglu spoils victory celebrations
But the AKP's celebrations were premature. They had underestimated Ekrem Imamoglu, the man who has upset all of Erdogan's plans. Before the local elections, the social democrat politician was completely unknown outside of Istanbul, and not even the most audacious experts had considered the 49-year-old candidate a potential winner.
Yet when the votes were counted on election day, he emerged just ahead of Yildirim, and was able to take office as mayor. Soon after, the AKP lodged a complaint with the election commission, which annulled the result, meaning that a fresh vote would be needed.
Imamoglu has already served as the mayor of Beylikduzu, a district of western Istanbul, for five years. The father of three is originally from Trabzon, a conservative city on the Black Sea coast; his family owns a medium-sized construction company.
Imamoglu is regarded as liberal and progressive. During the campaign, he often emphasized that he sees himself as a politician in the "Kemalist tradition," modeled after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. Values such as democracy, progress, laicism and equality are important to him. In his short term as mayor of Istanbul — just 18 days, before the election commission deprived him of his victory — he sparked a furor when he immediately hung a portrait of Ataturk in his city hall office.
Imamoglu has the common touch, part of the reason his campaign was so successful. Representatives of the social-democratic CHP party are often perceived as elite and overly intellectual, but he has a talent for being down-to-earth. Imamoglu has no difficulty speaking the language of voters. He likes to talk with people on the streets of Istanbul, promising that he will take their needs into consideration.
Despite his progressive orientation, Imamoglu also has appeal for conservative religious voters with his unifying campaign.
During the televised debate with his opponent, he emphasized that the first thing he wanted to do was to put an end to the polarization of society, so that all Turks could once again coexist harmoniously. This is a balm to the souls of many in Turkey — they like Imamoglu's calm and friendly manner.
Imamoglu is still fighting tirelessly to become mayor, despite being stripped of the post and being forced to run again. His chances are good: Opinion polls put him ahead of Yildirim; taking as much as a six-point lead going into the vote on June 23. Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0500 UTC) and close at 5 p.m.
If Imamoglu prevails, it could be a significant step for Turkey as a whole. Many people in Istanbul are even comparing him with Erdogan, who also represented change at the start of his career, became mayor of Istanbul after a hard-won fight — and went on to dominate Turkish politics.