Has Ekrem Imamoglu shown the world how to beat a populist? For liberals everywhere, the Istanbul mayor’s landslide victory was a starburst in a dark decade, during which their side has groped for a winning strategy against populist politics. Many will now parse the result for lessons that can be applied elsewhere.
Imamoglu’s win represents a major reversal for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, admired by populists worldwide for his domination of Turkish politics. If Erdogan can be bearded in his own den — he gained national attention as Istanbul’s mayor — then perhaps there’s hope for those who aspire to defeat populists … say, in the US next year.
There are important caveats. Istanbul may be a bellwether of Turkish politics, but it is hardly the microcosm of the world. Some of the conditions in which Imamoglu achieved his victory are sui generis. Turkey is in a severe economic crisis, and many Istanbulis seized on the election to express their displeasure at high inflation and unemployment. This is unlikely to be the case in the US next November.
The AKP was unable to label him [Imamoglu] a typical secularist, which can be a liability with some religious voters.
Nor can liberals elsewhere expect their populist opponents to make the political blunders Erdogan did. After Imamoglu scraped to a narrow victory in the mayoral race in March, the president insisted the vote was flawed, and demanded a do-over. This effectively united Turkey’s notoriously fractious opposition around Imamoglu, making him that much stronger.
Even so, the mayor deserves credit for making the most of his fortune, avoiding blunders of his own, and running a smart campaign that resonated with voters.
Here are some campaign elements that could merit emulation:
Don’t worry, be happy: The bleak economic outlook — Turkey is in its first recession in a decade — might have been a stick with which to beat Erdogan. But Imamoglu seems to have intuited that voters didn’t need him to connect the dots between the grim tidings and the president. Rather than repeatedly reminding them of how bad things were, Imamoglu kept up a positive attitude, exemplified by his campaign slogan, “Everything is going to be great.”
It helps, of course, that fixing the economy will not be the mayor’s responsibility: he could afford to be sunny without having to deliver the sunshine. But the positivism paid off.
It isn’t identity, stupid: For two decades, Turkish politics has been largely about identity, with Erdogan’s AK Party representing Islam, and much of the opposition embracing the secularism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Although Imamoglu is from the CHP, founded by Ataturk, he pointedly avoided the partisanship that has characterised previous campaigns. A regular attendee at Friday services at his mosque, he did not shy away from religiosity, as secular politicians often do: campaigning during Ramadan, he broke the daily fast with voters.
This meant the AKP was unable to label him a typical secularist, which can be a liability with some religious voters. Imamoglu campaigned hard in many of Istanbul’s most religious neighbourhoods, long considered lost causes for secular parties. Between the first and second votes, he was able to win over several traditionally pro-AKP districts.
There are no deplorables: Arguably, his most winning campaign strategy was to avoid labelling others. Rather than demean and dismiss Erdogan’s vote base — and where have we seen that happen? — Imamoglu made a special effort to reach out to them, in a plan dubbed “Radical Love.”
This meant ignoring the name-calling by his opponents — who accused him of cozying up to Kurdish terrorists and, at one point, of being secretly Greek — and instead addressing himself to traditional Erdogan supporters.
It worked: Imamoglu won by more than 800,000 votes. It was arguably the biggest election setback of Erdogan’s career, the first major defeat for his brand of populism.
Will the Imamoglu playbook work against other populists? We won’t know until it’s been tried. But given the scale of his victory, liberals elsewhere might give it a shot.
Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.