Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News
Ekrem Imamoglu Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Dubai: After more than 16 years of non-stop electoral victories at every level, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has witnessed an urban revolt. Turns out, Turks in the big cities are taking a dim view of the economic situation in the country.

The ruling AK Party’s alarm at losing local elections in the capital Ankara turned to shock as it appeared that a little known candidate of the Kemalist opposition Republican People’s party (CHP) had won the main prize — Istanbul — by a razor-thin majority.

Though a recount is now underway in the mega city following AKP’s objections, and official results are to be announced in the coming few days, it appears that Ekrem Imamoglu has pulled off a surprise victory against AKP heavyweight and former prime minister Binali Yildirim.

Such has been the build-up of admiration and hope about Imamoglu in the Turkish and international anti-Erdogan camp that he is now being seen as a candidate who can run against and defeat Erdogan in presidential elections in 2023.

Uncertainty

Erdogan’s political success has rested on years of stellar economic growth in Turkey, but an economic recession that has brought surging inflation and unemployment and a plunging lira currency have taken their toll on his popularity.

Uncertainty generated by the local elections has added to pressure on the lira, which weakened sharply last week as a lack of confidence in the currency among Turks led them to snap up record holdings of dollars and gold.

On the electoral front, Imamoglu’s reconciliatory approach won him many admirers. After both candidates early on April 1 declared victory, he made sure to steer away from provocation.

Declaring victory later on that day, he also adopted an open, non-confrontationist stance. His supporters see Imamoglu as a man of compromise who is fond of having a common table to discuss problems. His campaign slogan touted his pragmatism: “If there is Imamoglu, there is solution.”

During the campaign, realising that the odds were against him, he said: “The media, especially the state television, is far from being fair … but we have social media which is at least an untouched area for now. Right now my biggest weapon in the field is the 1,000-year-old method of communication by word of mouth.”

Born in 1970 in the Black Sea coastal city of Trabzon in northeast Turkey, Imamoglu studied business administration in Istanbul University and later completed a master’s degree in management.

District Mayor

He worked in the family construction business before entering into local politics a decade ago. He was elected district mayor of Istanbul’s Beylikduzu area in 2014.

He shares one common trait with Erdogan, a love of football. The Turkish leader was a semi-professional player in his youth.

Imamoglu was also an amateur footballer and is still involved with local Trabzonspor team.

Analysts believe Imamoglu was well known as a competent mayor of his middle-class Istanbul district and benefited from his non-ideological approach that didn’t polarise voters.

If he performs well as a mayor, the CHP may be able to expand its voter base in Turkey’s most populous city and the country, with Imamoglu emerging as a national figure.

Throughout election night until the early hours of Monday, Imamoglu kept up a marathon of media briefings to discuss the results.

Throughout the country, the AKP was still the party that bagged the most number of votes, with over 44 per cent; the opposition polled in at just over 30 per cent. But it is in the big cities that the opposition has prevailed — Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, Adana and the jewel in the crown — Istanbul.

There is one aspect that all the opposition’s candidates in these cities share: They were all mayors of districts in these cities, and performed well in the roles.

The secularist, Kemalist opposition in Turkey has often suffered from perceptions that it is elitist and removed from people’s day-to-day reality.

But in Imamoglu — who clearly seems to have touched a chord — it may have found a serious candidate for the highest rungs of leadership in the republic.

There are signs that Imamoglu also entertains ambitions of leading Turkey some day. When asked if the results in the big cities were the beginning of the end for Erdogan and the AKP he said: “Everything comes to an end. Parties, governments, life itself. Erdogan has finished his 17th year in power. There are problems and things we don’t like — but it’s a political success. Of course there will be an end to it one day.”

— With inputs from agencies