Will Istanbul raise a new political figure in Turkish politics?

Will Istanbul raise a new political figure in Turkish politics?

In mid-2018 all the field studies conducted by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) pointed at Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Beylikdüzü district, as the best candidate for Istanbul mayor.

İmamoğlu was hesitant. He wanted to run in the Istanbul district for a second time, get more experience and publicity before putting forth his candidacy as the CHP’s mayor for Istanbul. He was an unknown figure to the locals in the city and he thought too little campaigning time was left until the March 31 elections.

Someone from outside the CHP, yet very knowledgeable on the internal dynamics of the party, told him it was too late for him to back down, and that “it was now or never again.” Why never again? Because his name was already mentioned and if he had not run now, potential rivals within the CHP would do all in their hands to discredit him and make sure he gets disqualified quickly.

İmamoğlu decided to run. He indeed outperformed himself.

“Is he the man?” seems to be the question Justice and Development Party (AK Party) opponents have been mulling since the outcome of the local elections. 

Can he be the one to run against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the next presidential elections? It is too early to provide an answer to that question. But certain criteria could be used in order to have sound projections for the future, and one such criteria is to have a healthy analysis of his success.

He won because of a number of reasons, yet most of these reasons have nothing to do with his expected performance as mayor.

He got the votes of the sympathizers of the opposition alliance precisely because they did not want to vote for the ruling coalition’s candidate. In other words, the overriding motivation for the supporters of the CHP, İYİ (Good) Party and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to vote for İmamoğlu was not really his plans to make Istanbul greener, for example.

Similarly, reaction to the ruling cadres, especially due to economic difficulties as well as their insistence for a rerun of elections instead of focusing on solving problems, must have factored in more among the supporters of the ruling coalition than Imamoğlu’s campaign pledges to address the problems of poverty.

But the real key to success came thanks to his rhetoric on inclusiveness. He was successful to convince the supporters of the ruling coalition that he will not fall victim to polarization, that he will not discredit, exclude and disregard the sympathizers of the rival parties.

He might continue this rhetoric. But this rhetoric itself will not be sufficient to make him a promising leader for the future.

The AK Party owes its electoral success in the 2000’s to its all-encompassing rhetoric as well that did not exclude and stigmatize liberals and social democrats. But above all, it owes it to the economic growth the country has registered. Millions of people’s lives had improved in concrete terms.

As mayor, İmamoğlu needs to prove that he can manage the city’s problems. The locals in the city need to feel concretely, that after him Istanbul has become a better city to live in. At least he needs to show that he is making the best with the resources at hand.

But how about the central government’s obstructive efforts?

He can turn them into an advantage, as showcasing these efforts will be to the detriment of his rivals while it can provide an excuse for his underperformance.

But no matter what the excuse is, underperformance does not make you win future elections. As is the case with the other cities which are in the hands of the opposition, he will have to prove that he can come up with innovative solutions against all odds.

His communication and electoral campaign strategists have shown a successful performance. He has worked in harmony with the CHP’s provincial head Canan Kaftancıoğlu. Will he continue to do so in the future? Will he be able to gather a team that will be as successful as his campaign strategists?

These are the factors we will have to monitor.

If he displays good performance and if indeed other municipalities run by the CHP, like Ankara, Adana and Mersin, show similar successes, then make no mistake, Turkey will hit the ballot boxes again in two years’ time, as the ruling coalition will not tolerate a rising popularity trend in the opposition.

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