By announcing his candidacy for the mayorship of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality again, Ekrem Imamoğlu takes the greatest risk of his political life. If Imamoğlu —who became a rising star in Turkish politics as the ‘person who took Istanbul back from the AKP’—loses the election in March 2024, his political career will have ended.
Contrary to common discourse and belief, the May elections have demonstrated that the winner of Istanbul could not win the elections in Turkey too. However, there should be no doubt that the one who loses Istanbul will also lose Turkey. If İmamoğlu loses in the local elections, he will have torn up his ‘success story‘ with his very own hands.
So, in light of this, what can he do?
First, he was attributed a presidential candidacy, but it didn’t happen. Defying great pressures in his favor, he chose not to take the initiative in this direction.
He probably thinks that it is not possible to replace Kılıçdaroğlu with the current delegate structure of the CHP. So far, the candidacy for the Istanbul mayorship remains the only way for him to survive as a political actor. Thus he will stand for candidacy with the hope of reviving the opposition alliance, working hard as he did in the 2019 local elections, and win. Expectations and hopes are in this direction.
So, is this really a good plan? Can İmamoğlu win Istanbul again?
Of course, it is possible. İmamoğlu has the right stuff for a politician, his dialogues with people are very good, he knows how to exchange his feelings with the public and fire up excitements within society. He is a politician who manages to get votes from almost all walks of life. In other words, Imamoğlu should not be underestimated as a political personality.
However, the conditions are very different compared to those in 2019. Compared to the previous elections, İmamoğlu has gained more advantages on some fronts. His performance in the past four years has gained appreciation from the Istanbulites.
Now, by announcing his candidacy, Imamoğlu has put his entire political career on the table. His message should be read as ‘all or nothing’. Thus, he must win if he wants to survive in politics—or else.
Therefore, the focus should be on the pros and cons of electoral victory. And in this election, İmamoğlu’s cons are still quite high compared to those in 2019.
First, winning local elections in 2019 for him was a starting gun on the way to winning general elections. That process ended in failure; it did not lead to a general election victory that removed the AKP from power. That is, change at the local level could not trigger change on a larger scale. This is a conclusive mood that will negatively affect both the level of turnout as well the excitement and motivation of the voters.
İmamoğlu was a relatively little-known politician in 2019 and an underdog. He was confronted by a party —the AKP— and a candidate who was almost sure he would win. They did not know İmamoğlu, his personality, his political style, or his touch with the public. Using the advantage of being unknown, he surprised his opponent with unexpected moves, won the hearts of the alliance voters, managed to stand upright on election night. And he won.
The İmamoğlu of 2024, on the other hand, is ‘deciphered’, so to speak. His strengths and weakness, his character and style, and what he can and can not do are well known. So, he is no longer a candidate who can surprise his opponent. He lacks the advantages of the underdog as he was four years ago.
Moreover, the tendency to vote in local elections is likely to be low. But the idea of ‘let’s not lose Istanbul either’ following the general electionsmay re-activate voters. Yet the opposition voters are tired and offended. They have lost hope and motivation. There is a mass of voters who want to punish Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (former candidate of the presidential race and the leader of the CHP) and Meral Akşener (leader of the nationalist party in the opposition bloc, IYIP), who failed in the general elections. İmamoğlu may therefore be the victim of those voters who want to punish especially Kılıçdaroğlu in this election.
Therefore, it is also important who will be sitting in the leadership seat in the CHP on the eve of the elections. We know nearly for certain that this person will be none other than Kılıçdaroğlu. Therefore, as Imamoğlu enters the local election race in late March 2024, he will be seen as Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidate.
It is important to note that Imamoğlu, who opened a “flag for change” against Kılıçdarooğlu, but will find himself again to be officially nominated by him, will have difficulties in becoming “himself.” It is a crucial risk for İmamoğlu to go to the election as the nominee of a leader to whom the opposition voters feel dismay.
One of the key features of 2019 when Imamoglu won the election was the harmony between the party organizations and the candidate: the CHP and IYIP organizations threw their weight behind the election campaign. And it was ultimately effective.
But it is a dream to expect such harmony in 2024. It would not be easy to mobilize the divided CHP organization and members in favor of Imamoğlu. How the IYIP cadres who are upset with Kilicadaroglu and the CHP will react to Imamoglu’s candidacy with the CHP ticket remains a mystery. Even if Meral Akşener supports him, what will the voters say? It is also unthinkable that the pro-Kurdish HDP will not nominate its own candidate — as opposed to what it did in 2019. Besides, the socialist TIP, with 4% votes in Istanbul, may also insist on having their own candidates to prove their electoral strength and catch those opposition voters who are disappointed with CHP. All of this shows that the elections in 2024 will not be easy at all.
Moreover, let’s refresh our memory. While talking about the election of İmamoğlu in 2019, we tend to remember the 800 thousand surplus votes Imamoglu received in the June re-election, and tend to forget that in the March election (which was annulled by the judiciary), the majority was only 13 thousand votes. The difference in June 2019 was a reaction to the decision by the High Electoral Board to renew the elections, the politicization of the judiciary, and the AKP’s disrespect for the will of Istanbulites. Thus, Imamoğlu’s real political base back then was the vote he received in March 2019 —a very narrow majority.
And, most importantly: Imamoğlu becomes increasingly identified with the CHP day by day. This is also one of the factors that have changed since 2019: In the 2019 elections, Imamoğlu won the election with the identity of a ‘local politician’—rather unknown and not seen as partisan.
Since then, his role in the presidential election has made him an important actor in national politics, but it has also associated him more with the CHP and its leader, Kilicdaroglu. After the May elections, the CHP/Imamoğlu identifcation has gone even further with debates putting him forth as the prospective CHP leader. He is no longer the Imamoğlu who can get votes from every party and reach every segment of society, but the Imamoğlu who is strongly identified with the CHP. This image burdens him with loads of the historical and perceptual baggage of the CHP, and threatens his image as a “local politician” who can talk to and reach all kinds of people. In short, if he stands as a candidate for the mayorship of Istanbul he will enter the elections in 2024 under these conditions. Such an image and perception may tie İmamoğlu to the 28 percent CHP voters in Istanbul —and no more.
And we haven’t yet talked about what the AKP will do. We didn’t even mention what kind of moves Erdogan, including his judicial interventions, could make to “take back Istanbul” —the “apple of Erdoğan’s eye.” He is, after all, a leader who won the latest elections and made his political hegemony nearly absolute.
Although it may seem paradoxical, perhaps the only way that will guarantee Imamoğlu a political future is for the judiciary to rule a political ban on him. Will his opponents offer him this favor?
This piece was originally published but the Turkish site Diken. It has been translated by FTP.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not represent those of the Free Turkish Press.