Thousands of people gathered in Istanbul’s seaside Maltepe district on Sunday to see a politician take the stage in dazzling spring sunshine, red Turkish flags fluttering in the wind.
Such scenes are normal in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, but this rally wasn’t for him. It was for Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, who last month delivered one of the biggest challenges to Erdoğan’s grip on the country in years.
Local elections on 31 March proved to be an unexpected watershed moment in Turkish politics, as usually run-of-the-mill races for mayors and neighbourhood administrators became a referendum on Erdoğan’s handling of the faltering economy.
The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and an allied nationalist party won more than half of the votes across Turkey as a whole. But despite almost blanket pro-government media coverage, they lost Istanbul, the country’s economic and cultural powerhouse, as well as the capital, Ankara, breaking Islamist parties’ control of the two cities for the first time in a quarter of a century.
The AKP has challenged the secular Republican People’s party’s (CHP) win in Istanbul. As Erdoğan’s home town and the place where his political career took off as mayor in the 1990s, the city was a particularly painful loss for the president. His party has alleged ballot box fraud and asked Turkey’s electoral board for a rerun.
With a decision pending and possible new elections proposed for 2 June, the fight for control of the city is not over. But İmamoğlu seemed unperturbed as he settled into his new city hall office during an interview with the Guardian last week, wandering around the grand room to straighten gilt-framed pictures hanging on the walls.
“I am not feeling any pressure,” the 49-year-old said. “There are 16 million people in this city waiting for me to serve them and do the job I was elected to do. We need to work together and we can walk this road to success.”
İmamoğlu’s inclusive and conciliatory rhetoric was a large part of what got him elected: he strikes a tone very different to that of the firebrand politicians who have come to dominate Turkey’s polarised political scene. During the mayoral campaign, İmamoğlu reached out to working-class and pious AKP voters usually alienated by the middle-class CHP and talked about the need to integrate Syrian refugees into Turkish society.
“Lots of AKP voters asked me why I wasn’t running for their party instead,” he said. “They were pleased when I asked for their prayers rather than their votes.
“I don’t believe the public accepts divisive rhetoric and discriminatory policies. Populism has the upper hand in the world at the moment, but it will end eventually. Treating people with respect always wins out.”
Photograph: Emrah Gürel/AP
İmamoğlu was an outsider pick as the opposition coalition’s candidate for mayor of Istanbul. He entered local politics in 2009 in an effort to sort out red tape facing his family construction business, eventually becoming mayor of the middle-class Beylikdüzü district in 2014’s local elections – the only seat gained by the CHP in the city that year.
Although well liked by constituents in Beylikdüzü, he was unknown to voters in the rest of Istanbul when he was pitted against the former prime minister Binali Yıldırım, a candidate hand-picked by Erdoğan to ensure an AKP victory, in last month’s election.
On election night as the initial results started to indicate a surprise CHP win, İmamoğlu held his ground, refusing to concede despite a premature victory announcement from Yıldırım.
“I didn’t sleep for almost 48 hours and I think we held 13 press conferences in the 24 hours after polling stations closed,” he said. “The official state agency was giving misleading numbers we knew were wrong. People were getting anxious and it was very stressful but we had to be sure we were right before we made a challenge.”
Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the CHP chair for Istanbul, said: “We were very prepared for the elections this time. We did our own polling, we had a double checking system to count votes, we made sure ballot boxes could not be tampered with. As the opposition we have finally learned from our previous mistakes in dealing with the government.”
Istanbul’s unofficial result - the final count still has not been verified – sent shockwaves through the rest of Turkey. İmamoğlu’s victory puts him at the forefront of resurgent social democratic movements around the world. But although he is now being touted as a potential candidate to run against Erdoğan for president in 2023, İmamoğlu said he did not see himself as a figure on the world stage.
“I think that judgment should be made by others, not by me. My decisions and my path in politics are a result of the fact that I’m a good manager with 10 years’ experience in getting things done,” he said.
There are potentially many obstacles in his path. Selahattin Demirtaş, another figure once touted as the Turkish opposition’s hope for the future, is in prison on charges related to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which he denies. Despite a strong campaign, Muharrem İnce, the CHP presidential candidate in 2018, quickly folded without explanation on election night.
İmamoğlu reached out to Erdoğan at the beginning of the local election campaigning, meeting him in Ankara, but the president delivered a pointed snub at an official engagement in Istanbul last week, refusing to shake his hand.
İmamoğlu, for his part, would risk the government’s anger if the CHP boycotts a rerun in Istanbul. Several CHP sources told the Guardian the party would refuse to engage in any AKP attempts to change last month’s result.
“I’m not even entertaining the thought of a rerun,” İmamoğlu said. “It’s clear we won. [The AKP] want to make people think otherwise, but it’s over. It’s time to move on.”
Seventeen days after the election, İmamoğlu’s team was finally given access to city hall on Wednesday night. The hectic activity in the building came to a brief standstill on Friday afternoon as İmamoğlu made his first address to municipality workers.
“I don’t want to be worshipped or feared. I just want you to work alongside me so we can do the best possible job for the people who elected us,” the new mayor told several hundred employees, some of whom leaned over balconies and took out phones to film the speech. “We have a lot of work to do.”