Ekrem Imamoglu: Turkey's rising political star

24.06.2019

Softly-spoken football fan Ekrem Imamoglu has emerged from relative obscurity to win Turkey's biggest city – twice – as the new figurehead of the country's long-suffering opposition.

It has been a rollercoaster year for the 49-year-old who shocked most observers by squeaking to victory in Istanbul's mayoral election in March, only to see that result annulled by election authorities a few weeks later. He rejected claims by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the election had been marred by fraud, saying the ruling party had simply refused to cede control of the metropolis and its vast resources.

"What we are doing now is a fight for democracy and mobilisation for democracy," he told journalists in May. "It will of course be a revolution once we carry it to its conclusion."

His relentlessly upbeat campaign paid off with an emphatic win on Sunday night, extending his margin of victory from just 13,000 votes in March to more than 775,000.

The sense of injustice did wonders for Imamoglu's profile at home and abroad, with his Twitter following soaring from 350,000 to more than 2.75 million.

Born in 1970 in the Black Sea coastal city of Trabzon in northeast Turkey, Imamoglu was a little-known district mayor in the western suburb of Beylikduzu where he had built a reputation as a competent but unflashy administrator. A key advantage has been his ability to reach beyond the normal demographic of his staunchly secular Republican People's Party (CHP).

A practicing Muslim, he also shares a passion for football with Erdogan, having played at amateur level and still serving on the board of his hometown Trabzonspor team.

Imamoglu studied business management before entering his family's lucrative real estate and restaurant business in western Istanbul.

During his first campaign in March, Imamoglu opted for a low-key, on-the-ground approach, hoping discretion would be an advantage against his well-known ruling party rival, Binali Yildirim. But after having his victory annulled, he gave a surprisingly forthright speech, rolling up his sleeves and telling supporters: "Maybe you are upset but never lose your hope.".

He lambasted the ruling AKP for the "extravagant" spending he found during his brief 18-day stint as mayor of the Istanbul municipality. But the key to his success has been his positive campaigning style – in contrast to the often vicious personal attacks of Turkish politics – and his easy rapport with people on the street, where he is regularly seen taking selfies with voters in bazaars and cafes.

"Imamoglu is a very natural man who can talk easily with people," says Zilan Karakurt, who filmed live videos of Imamoglu's campaign for social media. "This is something not every candidate can do."

His marketing has been astute, particularly his choice of slogan for the new campaign – "Everything will be fine" – which came from a 13-year-old boy called Berkay, who ran after Imamoglu's election bus shouting the line.

It came to epitomise his style of campaigning and has caught on with businesses and artists who have often been fearful of challenging the ruling party in the past.

After 17 years of AKP rule, it has also brought fresh hope to the opposition CHP, even if the next presidential election is not until 2023.

Imamoglu himself remains coy about his future prospects.

"Time will tell," he told journalists when asked if he might follow Erdogan's path from the Istanbul mayorship to national leadership.    (AFP)

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