Istanbul's Imamoglu has a plan
The words "Itʹll all be fine", set to Anatolian pop beats, come from the rolling loudspeakers. The car speeds past and the rhythmic song fades away as quickly as it appeared. You can still just about hear the chorus, which features the name "Imamoglu" (literally: "son of the Imam"), the mayoral candidate representing Turkeyʹs main opposition party, the CHP.
This was the background music to this yearʹs Ramadan. Residents of Istanbul are used to being bombarded with election songs at regular intervals. Before every election – most recently, during the 2018 presidential campaign – the political camps try to outdo each other by producing ever more catchy songs. The ruling AKP dominated, with its Erdogan anthem based on a central Asian battle song. But for the last few months, all you hear in Istanbul is the upbeat music of Imamogluʹs Republican Peopleʹs Party.
If it were up to the CHP, the song wouldnʹt even be playing now. What has happened? There were local elections in Turkey on 31 March. In many of the countryʹs provinces, especially in central and eastern Anatolia, the ruling partyʹs candidates swept the board. But in the coastal regions, as expected, the CHP came out on top. And on election night, the three large Turkish cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul initially seemed to be firmly in the hands of the opposition, for the first time in more than 25 years.
A political turning point?
Some people started proclaiming a political turning point as soon as the provisional results of the election were made public – though many see Turkeyʹs fate mapped out in the results of the vote in the three major cities. Despite a swift challenge to the result by the AKP, Ekrem Imamoglu was officially declared the victor in Istanbulʹs mayoral election in mid-April. The opposition candidateʹs triumph, and the electoral commissionʹs confirmation of the victory despite fierce resistance from the countryʹs current rulers, was taken by the international community as a sign that things were not looking too bad for Turkish democracy.
But it was also clear that the election had been won by a very narrow dummy: according to official figures, Imamoglu had a lead of just 13,729 votes, which is vanishingly small in a city of around 15 million people. Erdogan and Binali Yildirim, the last Turkish prime minister and now the AKPʹs candidate for mayor of Istanbul, continued to challenge the election result. Their party suspected irregularities – and in fact, re-counts have seen the CHPʹs vote share reduced considerably in some areas of the city.
The tensions around the results of the Istanbul election are symptomatic of Turkeyʹs current division into two camps of roughly equal strength. The major cities, home to millions of people who have moved there from every region of the country, are often viewed as miniature versions of the nation as a whole. And this is another reason the AKP fears Imamoglu: they are afraid of a charismatic man being promoted on the glittering stage of Istanbul, and potentially becoming a dangerous opposition candidate challenging Erdogan in 2023. History could repeat itself here – only this time, for the other side. Erdogan himself once raised his profile as mayor of Istanbul, before going on to become the most powerful man in Turkey.