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At stake in the Istanbul mayoral race: Turkey’s political future

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ISTANBUL: The contest to run city hall 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 the incumbent, Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a rising star in the political opposition who won in a surprise victory in 2019 and is widely seen as a potential contender for the presidency.
The second is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who served as Istanbul’s mayor decades ago and has wanted to return his hometown to the control of his governing Justice and Development Party since Imamoglu’s win.
The outcome will be decided by municipal elections Sunday that will in many ways shape Turkey’s political future.
A win for Erdogan’s party would allow it to reclaim the political and financial clout of running Turkey’s largest city, further empowering a leader whom critics accuse of leading the country toward autocracy. A win for the incumbent mayor, however, could reinvigorate the anti-Erdogan opposition and propel Imamoglu toward the next presidential election, expected in 2028, when he could face off against Erdogan.
“This election will determine the nature of the political race in Turkey for the years to come,” said Sinan Ulgen, the 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 sunk and many people have come to feel poorer. It also follows presidential and parliamentary elections in May that granted Erdogan another term, dashing the hopes of a coalition of opposition parties that had joined forces to try to unseat him.
In that election, Erdogan secured victory despite widespread voter anger at inflation that had soared to more than 80% and criticism that his government had failed to swiftly respond to powerful earthquakes that killed more than 53,000 people in southern Turkey in February 2023.
The opposition’s loss battered its morale and its coalition fell apart.
Many opposition voters now see Imamoglu as uniquely capable of winning against Erdogan’s party, so much so that they predict he could be Turkey’s next president.
“If Imamoglu wins Istanbul again, people will think that the chance to beat Erdogan is not all gone,” said Seda Demiralp, a professor of political science at Isik University in Istanbul.
On Sunday, voters will elect mayors and other municipal officials across Turkey, but much of the focus is on Istanbul, given its size and political and economic importance.
Home to some 16 million people and straddling the Bosporus between Europe and Asia, Istanbul generates much of Turkey’s economic output. The metropolitan municipality has about 90,000 employees, many working for municipal companies whose directors the mayor nominates. All of that gives whoever sits in city hall significant opportunities to reward supporters with municipal jobs and contracts.
The race is also personal. Erdogan, 70, grew up in Istanbul, where his father worked as a ferryboat captain. His own political career leaped forward when he won an upset victory to become the city’s mayor from 1994 to 1998. Many residents hailed him for practical governance that focused on quality-of-life issues in the ancient city: cleaning up polluted streets and waterways and expanding running water and sewer networks.
While he later ascended to serve as prime minister and president, jobs technically based in Ankara, the capital, he often speaks of his love for Istanbul, whose rich history, cosmopolitan elite and booming tourist sector have long made it the jewel of Turkey.
Erdogan’s party maintained control of the city for most of the 25 years after he was elected there.
That is why it was such a blow to Erdogan’s party when Imamoglu, 52, defeated its candidate in 2019. Erdogan’s party alleged electoral irregularities, and Turkey’s election board ordered a rerun.
Imamoglu won that, too, by an even greater margin.
To try to take the city back, Erdogan has thrown his weight behind Murat Kurum, a former urban and environment minister in Erdogan’s government and a current lawmaker in his party.
Kurum, 47, has marketed himself as a hands-on technocrat who will expand services and transform Istanbul’s neighborhoods to protect residents from potential earthquakes, a major concern in a city that seismologists warn could be hit by a big one soon, potentially damaging hundreds of thousands of structures.
“We imagine an Istanbul where none of our households would fear earthquakes anymore,” he said at a large campaign rally last Sunday on the runway of an old airport. “All of our houses will be safe.”
He accused Imamoglu of running the city poorly.
“Today, Istanbul is restless and unhappy in the hands of an inadequate administration,” he said.
He referred to Istanbul as “the city that gave us as a gift our leader,” meaning Erdogan, and promised to follow his wishes.
“Our chief 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 one hand, there are those who only say ‘me.’ On the other, there are those who say ‘only Istanbul.'”
A number of people who had come for the rally spoke at length of their love for Erdogan and how he has run the country, and without mentioning Kurum.
“We are here to support Erdogan,” said Erkan Kirici, 49, a laborer in a clothing factory. “He develops our country and we want the country to move forward.”
At a separate, smaller rally days later, Imamoglu addressed people in the street from atop his campaign bus, taking about wastewater disposal, parking and free transit cards and milk for low-income families.
He characterized himself as an underdog, noting that not only Erdogan but also several ministers in his government had appeared in Istanbul to support Kurum.
“They allegedly want to take Istanbul back. From whom? From the nation itself!” he said. “The subways done by you or the subways done by me — they are all property of the nation. They think the positions, the posts they’ve been elected to are their own property.”
In the crowd, Suna Hisman, 40, and her sister cheered at the mayor’s quips and waved Turkish flags.
“We love him,” she said. “We support him, and God willing he will be our president.”
Turkey’s next national election is expected at the end of Erdogan’s mandate in 2028, but some Turks expect that he will seek to remain in power longer. He is currently in the second of the two presidential terms allowed by the constitution. But a parliamentary call 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 Turkey’s democracy by using the government to silence dissidents, co-opt the judiciary and cow the news media. Some analysts fear that a win for his party in Istanbul could further embolden Erdogan, accelerating such efforts.
“If the opposition loses now, there will be a long period with no elections and with a consolidated central government, which I think is already highly authoritarian,” said Demiralp, the political science professor.
Erdogan and his supporters reject the idea that he is an aspiring autocrat, pointing to his and his party’s long record of success at the polls.

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