CHP’s candidate to use ‘universal rhetoric’ to appeal to Kurdish voters
Ekrem İmamoğlu praised Zakarya Mildanoğlu, an Armenian-Turkish architect, as being among one of the key figures who shaped his perspective on cities. “It is thanks to him that I started walking with my head up, looking at buildings and becoming curious about the fate of buildings from the past,” İmamoğlu, the main opposition party’s mayoral candidate for Istanbul Municipality, has said.
He also mentioned Halil İbrahim Şanlı, another architect with whom he worked together. Şanlı, whose motto is “an architect is not one who designs a house but a lifestyle,” has left a mark on him, too.
İmamoğlu comes from the construction sector, a field the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has nearly come to identify with in the course of the past two decades. Born in Trabzon, he comes from the Black Sea region, like the founder of the ruling party and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate is the son of a businessman who worked in the 1980’s as the provincial head of ANAP, a liberal right-wing party. As a pious student praying five times a day and, just like Erdoğan, a fan of football, he came to Istanbul with his family in the mid 1980s.
The similarities with Erdoğan probably end there. Thanks to his two years in university in North Cyprus, he started leaning towards social democracy. His acquaintance with Beylikdüzü, of which he is currently the mayor, started in 1990 as his job took him to this newly developing neighborhood near the western part of the city. At that time Beylikdüzü’s population was around 2,000-3,000. Currently, the population is around 350,000. He says he witnessed first-hand the making of a big province. In 2008 he became the head of the CHP’s provincial branch in Beylikdüzü, and after five years, won the municipality back from the AK Party in the 2014 local elections.
His plans were to run again from Beylikdüzü and then put forth his candidacy for Istanbul in 2024. “That appeared to me as the right process. But Turkish politics has a different rhythm,” he yesterday told a group of journalists who were convinced that he was obliged to half-heartedly accept the CHP leader’s proposal to run for Istanbul — a proposal which came rather late in the race. The time factor is crucial since he is not known to millions in Istanbul and will be running against Binali Yıldırım, the former prime minister and the most known political figure in Turkey after Erdoğan.
He relies on the success story he believes he has written in Beylikdüzü. The province had six square meters of green area per person; it now has 9.5 square meters per person and he has plans to increase it to 16.5 by 2030. It is known as the greenest province in Istanbul.
While the AK Party has been running on a ticket of “big infrastructure projects,” İmamoğlu said he was not fond of this concept. He rather talked about the need to address 1.17 million children aged between 0 and 4. “Nearly 70 percent of them are from poor families. Add to that the children between 4 to 9, that makes up 2.5 million. We will serve their needs,” he said. One way will be to open daycare centers and another will be to take their mothers out from their houses since they are lacking any skills because they live confined in their houses.
In this sense İmamoğlu looks set to prioritize underprivileged women and children as their education and future remain a concerning preoccupation to many voters. This might appear odd for a local election agenda. “In the polls traffic/transportation appears to be number one problem of the voters. But when they go home, their daily concerns takes priority,” said İmamoğlu.
His team is also aware that ideology and identity politics have also become defining factors of the local elections. Personalities and projects which factored in more during local elections started to matter less especially during the last decade which has seen a tremendous rise in polarization in the society.
The CHP has been losing to the AKP with a small margin in the big cities. While it will remain highly difficult to attract voters from the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), İmamoğlu admitted that Kurdish voters will play a defining role. But as seen in the past, many CHP members believe messages directly targeting Kurdish votes can scare away potential votes from conservative swing voters, especially as the ruling party has often accused the opposition party of siding with “terrorists.”
İmamoğlu said he will not address any group by its ethnic affiliation. “I will use a universal language,” said İmamoğlu, adding that Kurdish voters are highly politicized and difficult to manipulate.
İmamoğlu trusts his as well as the CHP’s local organizations door-to-door campaign. An active use of social media will be the two communication strategies to compensate for their weak presence in traditional mainstream media, where the ruling party enjoys an overwhelming advantage.
Meeting with journalists at the office of Gülseren Onanç, a female nominee who wants to run for Beşiktaş municipality, İmamoğlu said he wants to work with as many women as possible if elected.