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Bedour Ibrahim

Erdogan conceded nationwide defeat

Istanbul Win Gives Erdogan Nemesis Chance to Fight for President

Monday 01/April/2024 - 05:51 PM
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Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu secured his status as the top opponent to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he extended his rule over the country’s largest city، a victory that could position him to one day take over from Turkey’s longest-serving leader.

Imamoglu، a 53-year-old from the main opposition Republican People’s Party، or CHP، defeated Erdogan’s handpicked candidate on Sunday in an election that polls had suggested was too close to call. The defeat was a blow to Erdogan’s AK Party، which had sought to re-take Istanbul and other key urban areas after losses in 2019.

Maintaining the economic program

In the broader battle between Turkey’s two main political adversaries، Erdogan conceded nationwide defeat، while vowing to maintain his economic program to fight rampant inflation. Imamoglu’s CHP retained control of Turkey’s three largest cities by a wide margin and seized mayoral seats in traditional strongholds of Erdogan’s AK Party and his nationalist ally، the MHP. 

Turkey’s lira weakened and stocks fell on Monday. Construction firms declined sharply as investors saw the ruling party’s defeat as a sign government-backed mega projects are unlikely to materialize in the near term.

The results represent a blow to the popularity of Erdogan، 70، who won last year’s presidential elections to extend his rule into a third decade. A face-off between Erdogan and Imamoglu for the presidency is not imminent، however، as the leader has a mandate until 2028. In the past he’s also been able to out-maneuver and crack down on opponents before being tested at the ballot box.

“In spite of the government’s vigorous efforts to reclaim control over Turkey’s economic powerhouse and despite a fragmented opposition، Imamoglu’s decisive win established a strong base for his possible run in the 2028 presidential elections،” said Temmuz Yigit Bezmez، a consultant at Istanbul Economics. “The elections highlighted Imamoglu’s gifted campaigning skills.”

Blaming Erdogan

Imamoglu first won the mayor’s seat in Istanbul five years ago، a symbolic victory that ended the president’s 25-year-rule of a city that has a $6.6 billion annual budget. After Sunday’s repeat victory، Imamoglu appealed to voters who blame Erdogan for the country’s economic hardships including a major cost-of-living crisis، with higher borrowing costs yet to tame soaring prices.

“There is no loser in this election. There is no ‘other’ where we are،” said Imamoglu، who favors a message of inclusiveness to contrast with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership. “It’s time in Istanbul to use the people’s money for the people. There is no partisanship. There is meritocracy. There is justice.”

Erdogan is serving his final term as president، but could be eligible to run again if parliament calls a snap election before his mandate expires. Imamoglu’s opportunity to challenge him increased as the CHP now holds a majority of Istanbul’s city council، allowing him to pick a successor as mayor from his own party. The inability to do so was seen as one of the reasons he was reluctant to run for the presidency last year.

Legal Battle

In the meantime، the Istanbul mayor has another battle to fight. He has been accused of insulting members of Turkey’s election authority who didn’t recognize his initial victory in 2019، and risks a political ban. The next hearing is scheduled for April 25. If he is barred، Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas could become the opposition’s candidate for the presidency.

Erdogan himself spent four months in jail in 1999 for “inciting religious hatred” after reading out a stridently Islamic poem at a political rally. The similarities between the arch rivals don’t end there، as both have family roots in the conservative Black Sea region and played football in their younger days، with Imamoglu keeping goal. 

After graduating from Istanbul University in 1992، Imamoglu worked in his family business in construction and contracting. He joined the main opposition CHP in 2008 and six years later was elected mayor in Istanbul’s southwestern district of Beylikduzu. Married with three children، he tries to defy the image projected by Erdogan of opposition leaders as elitist left-wing secularists who are out of touch with reality. 

Unlike many opposition figures، Imamoglu — whose surname means “son of imam” — doesn’t shy away from attending Friday prayers.

Asked in 2019 whether he could be the next president of Turkey، Imamoglu responded with a chuckle: “God knows.”