At stake in Istanbul's mayoral race: Turkey's political future

The contest for the city hall presidency in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city and economic dynamo, is in many ways between one man who is on the ballot and another who is not.

The first is incumbent Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a rising star in the political opposition who won a surprise victory in 2019 and is widely seen as a potential presidential contender.

The second is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who decades ago was mayor of Istanbul and, after Imamoglu's victory, wanted to bring his hometown back under the control of the ruling Justice and Development Party.

The outcome will be decided by Sunday's municipal elections, which in many ways will determine Turkey's political future.

A victory for Erdogan's party would allow him to reclaim the political and financial clout of running Turkey's largest city, giving further power to a leader who critics accuse of steering the country toward autocracy. A victory for the incumbent mayor, however, could reinvigorate the anti-Erdogan opposition and push Imamoglu towards the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2028, when he could face Erdogan.

“This election will determine the nature of the political race in Turkey for years to come,” said Sinan Ulgen, director of Edam, an Istanbul-based research organization.

The vote comes amid a prolonged cost-of-living crisis, during which the value of Turkey's currency has plummeted and many people have felt poorer. It also follows presidential and parliamentary elections last May that gave Erdogan another mandate, dashing the hopes of a coalition of opposition parties that had joined forces to try to oust him.

In that election, Erdogan secured victory despite widespread voter anger over inflation that had risen to more than 80 percent and criticism that his government had failed to respond quickly to powerful earthquakes that killed more of 53,000 people in southern Turkey in February 2023.

The opposition's defeat undermined its morale and its coalition fell apart.

Many opposition voters now see Imamoglu as the only one capable of winning against Erdogan's party, so much so that they predict he could be Turkey's next president.

“If Imamoglu won Istanbul again, people would think that the possibility of beating Erdogan is not completely gone,” said Seda Demiralp, a political science professor at Isik University in Istanbul.

Voters will elect mayors and other municipal officials across Turkey on Sunday, but much of the attention is on Istanbul, given its size and political and economic importance.

With around 16 million inhabitants and straddling the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia, Istanbul generates much of Turkey's economic output. The metropolitan municipality has around 90,000 employees, many of whom work for municipal companies whose directors are appointed by the mayor. All of this offers city hall officials important opportunities to reward supporters with city jobs and contracts.

The race is also personal. Erdogan, 70, grew up in Istanbul, where his father worked as a ferry captain. His political career took a leap forward when he won a landslide victory as mayor of the city from 1994 to 1998. Many residents hailed him for his hands-on governance focused on quality-of-life issues in the ancient city: cleaning up streets and polluted water and expand water and sewerage networks.

While he later became prime minister and president, with duties technically based in Ankara, the capital, he often speaks of his love for Istanbul, whose rich history, cosmopolitan elite and booming tourism sector have long made it the jewel of Turkey.

Erdogan's party has maintained control of the city for most of the 25 years since his election.

That's why it was a blow to Erdogan's party when Imamoglu, 52, defeated his candidate in 2019. Erdogan's party alleged election irregularities, and Turkey's election committee ordered a new vote.

Imamoglu also won by an even larger margin.

To try to take back the city, Erdogan did everything he could to support Murat Kurum, former minister of urban planning and environment in Erdogan's government and current deputy in his party.

Kurum, 47, cast himself as a hands-on technocrat who will expand services and transform neighborhoods in Istanbul to protect residents from potential earthquakes, a major concern in a city that seismologists warn could soon be hit by a major earthquake, potentially harmful. hundreds of thousands of structures.

“Let's imagine an Istanbul in which none of our families fear earthquakes anymore,” he said last Sunday during a large election rally on the tarmac of an old airport. “All our homes will be safe.”

He accused Mr Imamoglu of mismanaging the city.

“Today Istanbul is restless and unhappy in the hands of an inadequate administration,” he said.

He called Istanbul “the city that gave us our leader as a gift,” meaning Erdogan, and promised to follow his wishes.

“Our leader entrusted you to us,” he said.

Erdogan then took the stage, delivering a long speech in which he accused Imamoglu of using the city to seek higher office.

“Istanbul is at a crossroads,” he said. «On the one hand there are those who only say 'I'. On the other hand there are those who say 'only Istanbul'”.

Many people at the rally spoke at length about their love for Erdogan and how he governed the country, without mentioning Kurum.

“We are here to support Erdogan,” said Erkan Kirici, 49, a garment factory worker. “It develops our country and we want the country to move forward.”

Days later, at a separate, smaller rally, Imamoglu addressed people on the street from atop his campaign bus, talking about sewage disposal, free parking and transport cards, and milk for low-income families.

He called himself a loser, pointing out that not only Erdogan but also several ministers of his government had appeared in Istanbul to support Kurum.

“They supposedly want to take back Istanbul. From who? From the nation itself!” He said. “The subways made by you or those made by me are all the property of the nation. They think that the positions, the posts for which they were elected are their property.”

In the crowd, Suna Hisman, 40, and his sister applauded the mayor's jokes and waved Turkish flags.

“We love it,” he said. “We support him and God wants him to be our president.”

Turkey's next national elections are scheduled for the end of Erdogan's term in 2028, but some Turks expect he will try to stay in power longer. He is currently serving the second of the two presidential terms permitted by the Constitution. But a parliamentary request for early elections could allow him to run for another term, or he could seek to change the Constitution.

Erdogan's critics accuse him of eroding Turkish democracy by using the government to silence dissidents, co-opt the judiciary and intimidate the media. Some analysts fear that a victory for his party in Istanbul could further embolden Erdogan, accelerating those efforts.

“If the opposition loses now, there will be a long period without elections and with a consolidated central government, which I think is already highly authoritarian,” political science professor Demiralp said.

Erdogan and his supporters reject the idea that he is a would-be autocrat, pointing to his and his party's long history of success at the polls.

Gulsin Harman contributed to the reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *