Ousted Istanbul mayor seeks to reclaim position in polls today

CHP Party supporters were celebrating outside the party's headquarters after the inital results of the controversial re-run of Istanbul's mayoral election were announced.
Ekrem Imamoglu, mayoral candidate of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) and Turkey's main opposition, claimed a decisive victory on Sunday in Istanbul's re-run election, dealing one of the biggest blows to President Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr Ekrem Imamoglu, 49, has emerged as a national sensation and figurehead for the Turkish opposition.
Mr Ekrem Imamoglu, 49, has emerged as a national sensation and figurehead for the Turkish opposition. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ISTANBUL • Three months ago, Mr Ekrem Imamoglu was a little-known politician in a fringe Istanbul district who was attempting the near-impossible: to unseat Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK Party (AKP) from Turkey's largest city after 25 years in power.

Today - after having pulled off victory in March to become Istanbul mayor, only to be ousted last month - he has emerged as a national sensation and figurehead for the Turkish opposition.

His victory over the AKP in the municipal vote dealt Mr Erdogan one of the worst setbacks in his 16 years of power.

But Mr Imamoglu had been in office less than three weeks when Turkey's High Election Board annulled the results, citing irregularities, after weeks of appeals by the AKP.

Now the 49-year-old is trying to win again in a rerun of the mayoral vote today, this time against an AKP machine that has zeroed in on him with accusations of lying and terrorist associations as well as legal threats.

Mr Imamoglu has denied the allegations made by Mr Erdogan, Turkey's Foreign Minister, and his AKP mayoral opponent Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister. In response, the former businessman has tried to stick to the low-key inclusive message that handed him a narrow victory in the first campaign.

There are indications the scrapping of the election results, which many voters say was unjust, has actually served to bolster his popular support.

Recent polls give Mr Imamoglu of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) a lead of up to nine percentage points over Mr Yildirim of the Islamist-rooted AKP, far larger than his 0.2 percentage-point victory on March 31.

 
 
 

With his signature rimless eyeglasses and "Everything will be fine" slogan on billboards across Istanbul, Mr Imamoglu has sought to leverage the election board's decision to annul the results over irregularities including polling officials who were not civil servants. "Of course we have a different agenda item in this election and that is democracy (for which) we are at a turning point," he said last week.

"Our emphasis on the injustice and lawless intervention... will continue until the last minute."

Last Thursday, Mr Erdogan, who served as Istanbul's mayor in the 1990s, accused Mr Imamoglu of cheating in a televised debate by seeing the questions ahead of time, without citing evidence. The Turkish leader has also accused Mr Imamoglu of being in cahoots with the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been blamed for a failed putsch in 2016 and called a terrorist by Ankara.

Mr Erdogan also said Mr Imamoglu allegedly insulted the governor of Ordu, a Black Sea coastal province, and added that if prosecuted over the issue, he could be barred from office even if he wins.

The annulment of Mr Imamoglu's victory and attacks on his character have, however, had the effect of raising his profile at home and abroad.

His rallies this month before thousands of CHP supporters, including on a three-city tour of Turkey's Black Sea coast, are a far cry from the small face-to-face gatherings and Facebook videos favoured in his initial campaign.

Some media commentators have even earmarked him as a potential presidential candidate. "There's this expectation that he is likely to be the face of the opposition," said Mr Deniz Zeyrek, a journalist at opposition newspaper Sozcu. "I believe he will be in Turkey's political future, even if he loses."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 23, 2019, with the headline 'Ousted Istanbul mayor seeks to reclaim position in polls today'. Print Edition | Subscribe