Ekrem İmamoğlu: Turkey’s unexpected new hope in fight for democracy | World news

Ekrem İmamoğlu was not a well-known figure in Turkish politics before March’s fateful local elections.

But by standing his ground in the fierce battle to become mayor of Istanbul, even after Turkey’s electoral board cancelled his victory, he has become President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s most high profile challenger in years and the unexpected new hope for Turkish democracy.

The former construction company boss entered local politics in 2009, becoming mayor of Istanbul’s middle-class Beylikdüzü district in 2014. Although an outside pick for the opposition coalition People’s Republican party (CHP) mayoral candidate, his low-key campaign strategy in March built on the good faith he had already earned among constituents as a competent and open-minded administrator.

In speeches he stressed the importance of working together to tackle urban poverty and condemned the populist rhetoric that has become commonplace in Turkish politics. At the beginning of the year, he met with Erdoğan to discuss Istanbul’s future, a gesture that earned the respect of voters who have often felt alienated by the secular and middle-class CHP.

İmamoğlu was regularly seen at neighbourhood meetings discussing local issues, whereas the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) candidate, Binali Yıldırım, was sidelined by the president, who whipped up nationalist fervour at huge rallies.

Despite almost blanket pro-government media coverage for Yıldırım, İmamoğlu’s March campaign managed to draw votes from the city’s Kurdish minority who were unhappy with the arrests of Kurdish politicians, as well as working-class AKP voters suffering from an inflation rate above 20% and rising unemployment. The shock CHP victory broke Islamist parties’ grip on Turkey’s biggest city and economic heart for the first time in 25 years.

In the build up to Sunday’s rerun, the AKP has recalibrated its platform, reaching out to Kurdish voters and even rebranding some of İmamoğlu’s policies as its own, such as subsidised public transport for young people.

The AKP efforts have come to naught, however: able to play both victor and victim in this weekend’s vote, İmamoğlu has cast the new election as a battle for the future of Turkish democracy. Opinion polls showed his lead over Yildirim had widened by 8-9%.

“In the name of Istanbul and in the name of the legitimacy of all future elections in our country, I believe today my people will make the right decision,” he told supporters after he cast his vote on Sunday.

“İmamoğlu represents everything we have missed for a long time,” said a civil society activist, who asked not to be named.

“He is smart, has a great track record and is hopefully going to be the candidate against Erdoğan in 2023.”

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