Istanbul vote re-run: Ambitious mayor takes on Erdogan's man

By Mark Lowen
BBC Turkey correspondent, Istanbul

  • Published
Media caption,

Protests had erupted across Istanbul over the decision to re-run the election

It was a dream moment for Ekrem Imamoglu. As his campaign bus passed through Istanbul last month, a 13-year-old boy ran up.

"Older brother!" he shouted in Turkish. "Her sey cok guzel olacak!" - everything will be all right.

"Exactly, bravo!" answered the smiling mayoral candidate for Turkey's opposition, turning to his team. His slogan was settled.

A nation that has been through so much in the past few years - terror attacks, an attempted coup, the spill-over of the Syrian war, mass waves of migration - feels increasingly polarised, for and against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The opposition has been crying out for optimism. They found it in that slogan, and in their candidate.

The rise of a challenger to Turkey's president

Ekrem Imamoglu, a previously little-known 49-year-old mayor of the Istanbul district of Beylikduzu, has seized on the hope his supporters crave, channelling it into a relentlessly positive message as he fights to become mayor of Istanbul, for the second time.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Ekrem Imamoglu waves to supporters beneath his election slogan

The local election in March was tight. He faced former prime minister and ruling AK Party heavyweight Binali Yildirim, with all the resources of the state, including its near-total power over Turkish media.

But still Mr Imamoglu prevailed, by a sliver. Just 13,000 votes separated the two in a city of more than 15 million.

The government cried foul, alleging votes were stolen and that some polling station officials weren't authorised to carry out the role. It didn't contest votes for district mayors which were won by the AKP, even though they were held on the same day and overseen by the same officials.

The high election board ordered a re-run of the vote to elect the city mayor, under pressure, say critics, from President Erdogan.

Has Erdogan gone too far?

A native of Istanbul, Mr Erdogan was never going to give up control easily of Turkey's economic powerhouse.

"Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey," he said at rallies in the city he once ran as mayor and which propelled him to national power.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
If Binali Yildirim (C) is defeated, the result will be a big loss for President Erdogan

But as Turkey's biggest city heads to the polls for the second time in three months, could the serial election-winning president have badly miscalculated?

Most polls show Mr Imamoglu comfortably ahead this time. With the economy in crisis, inflation at almost 20% and the Turkish lira sliding by a third over the past year, the desire to punish the government is widespread.

What's more, some AKP voters complain that the re-run of the vote has made a mockery of the last vestige of Turkish democracy - credible elections - and are likely to switch support.

"We will win back our rights with a smile on our face," Mr Imamoglu told supporters as the re-run decision was announced. And that has been his strategy.

"I like hugging," he said as he launched his re-election campaign. "I will embrace those who resist us - nobody will be able to escape our hugs."

President's rivals scent defeat

The nationalist government has tried to taint him with every label they could dream up: Greek, terrorist, coup-supporter, American plant, backer of Egyptian autocrat President Sisi. But they have been like water off a duck's back.

"Erdogan is extremely worried," says Murat Yetkin, former editor of Hurriyet Daily News and now author of the YetkinReport blog.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
President Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul before he became president

"He is playing every card he has. If he loses, by whatever margin, it's the end of his steady political rise over the past quarter of a century. In reality, he'll still be president, his coalition will still control parliament, although many will perceive his defeat as the beginning of the end for him."

The president's rivals within his party are circling.

Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is preparing to form a new party, as is Mr Erdogan's predecessor as president, backed by a former economy minister. A loss on Sunday would hasten those splits.

Image caption,
Volunteers have been handing out masks of Ekrem Imamoglu

As an early summer rain fell over the Bosphorus, campaign volunteers on the shore were trying to secure every last vote.

"He's kind to people - and is staying positive against the attacks," said psychology student Enes Kandemir, as he photographed friends wearing paper masks of Ekrem Imamoglu's face. "He's not rude, and Turkey needs this."

Dilber Geckin, a housewife, was taking a flyer of Binali Yildirim from the AKP stand. "We're poor and they help us," she said. "We're diehard supporters - and we'll never change."

This is a pivotal moment for Turkey's most powerful president in modern times, and for the profoundly divided country he leads.

Across the street from the campaign stands, a waiter stops me in a cafe.

"What do you think will happen in the election?" he asks.

"Hard to know," I replied. "And you?"

He paused. "Her sey cok guzel olacak." Everything will be all right