Two victories in two months

On 23 June 2019, Ekrem İmamoğlu, the social democratic candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) was elected mayor of Istanbul with 54.2% of the vote. This was the first time in years that the CHP had won an election, ending the 25-year reign of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. İmamoğlu inflicted a historic and symbolic blow on President Erdogan, who lost Turkey’s largest city, and lost his efforts to try to overthrow the decision.

Indeed, the June 2019 election came after a first election held in March 2019, which was already won by Ekrem İmamoğlu and then cancelled. At the time Erdoğan contested this victory claiming ‘massive irregularities’ and the Higher Electoral Council (YSK) decided to cancel the poll and order new elections in June. This cancellation was described by the opposition as a ‘putsch against the ballot box’ and raised concerns in many Western countries. In the end, the new elections in June saw the victory of Ekrem İmamoğlu over his rival Binali Yildirim with 5.4 points more than in the first election. To everyone’s surprise, he scored particularly well in districts that were traditionally Islamo-conservative strongholds. Ekrem İmamoğlu became the mayor on 27 June, although the AKP remains in the majority in the city council.

While Turkey in 2019 seemed tired of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s anti-democratic drift and despotism, Ekrem İmamoğlu’s landslide victory put Istanbul in jubilation. A sign of hope for the whole country, this election is in fact a blow to the Islamist and nationalist power in place, which has already been weakened for some time. The cancellation of the first election shocked a large part of the electorate, even if it is not always easy to express disagreement in a country where political and religious polarization is extreme. Political scientist Ismet Akça explains, ‘The erosion of the AKP’s electoral base is becoming more and more apparent. The desire to retain power at the cost of suspending the democratic and legal processes is generating more and more reaction. Furthermore, the increasing clientelism within the party, as well as corruption, are evidence of a deterioration of moral values and this is causing a loss of credibility of the party and a distancing from the AKP’. Commenting on the cancellation of the first election, political analyst Kadri Gürsel also said: ‘Mr. Erdogan has probably made the biggest tactical mistake of his political career’, because, since then, the issue of the municipal election of 23 June has become national and even international. Since 2010, the AKP has also been marked by the violent internal conflict between the supporters of Imam Gülen, exiled in the United States, and the supporters of President Erdoğan. Additionally, the economic crisis and the deterioration of the standard of living that it entails contribute to the crumbling of the conservative electorate, as Ismet Akça points out, ‘the AKP had set up a system of redistribution that allowed a small slice of the cake to be given to the most deprived. But the cake eventually shrank. Youth unemployment in Istanbul has reached 25%. The crisis also strongly affects housewives, responsible for household chores, one of the AKP’s electoral bases.

In this context, on the evening of his victory, the new mayor of Istanbul gave a speech to his supporters that was both calm and unifying, perfectly in line with the tone and strategy of his election campaign. He thanked the 10 million Istanbul voters who had gone to the polls, with a special mention for ‘the Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, young people and women’, his campaign team, the volunteers who had organized the vote and the police officers on duty that day. He also promised ‘an end to extravagance and arrogance’ and added: ‘I will not run this city alone! Party leaders are not sacred, they are not above the people’.

It’s worth remembering, it was after being elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994 that Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself climbed the ladder of Turkish politics.

Ekrem İmamoğlu, ‘a virtual unknown’ who imposes his own style

Originally from Trabzon on the Black Sea and aged 49 at the time of his election in 2019, Ekrem İmamoğlu has been a member of the Kemalist-based Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2008. Appointed leader of the party’s youth movement in 2009, he was elected mayor of Beylikdüzü, one of Istanbul’s 39 districts, in 2014. He held this position until 2019.

At the beginning of the 2019 municipal election campaign, Ekrem İmamoğlu was therefore only a secondary figure in the CHP and a virtual unknown to the public and voters. However, this did not prevent him from winning both the March and May elections, and from achieving the feat of becoming the mayor of Istanbul after more than 20 years of AKP administration.

During the election campaign, his profile, his background and his personality proved to be winning elements:

A discreet candidate:

Faced with the strength and means of the AKP, Ekrem İmamoğlu considers from the beginning of the campaign that ‘his discretion is finally an advantage’, which brings him closer to the voters. Thus, in an interview with AFP in March 2019, he considers that ‘society has recently erected a wall around those who are already known in politics’.

A unifying candidate:

‘Coming from a family traditionally located on the social democratic side, (…) of the ‘left’, but with conservative tendencies, where Islam occupies an important place’ (Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, specialist in Turkish politics at the European Council on International Relations), Ekrem İmamoğlu embodies resistance to the authoritarian drifts of President Erdoğan but does not scare conservative voters too much either. Born into a traditional and conservative background, he does not hesitate to put forward his faith, anxious to show that ‘the Islamo-conservatives do not have a monopoly on religious fervour‘. In this sense, he brings together very different voters.

A former district mayor:

During the election campaign, Ekrem İmamoğlu, as mayor of the Beylikdüzü district, highlighted his record – especially the social record – of his five years of governance. Facing his opponent, Binali Yildirim, a true statesman who studied business administration at Istanbul University, he thus presented the investments made in housing, services, crèches, university hostels, parks. These results – and his background as a business leader – reassure Istanbulites in need of help in the context of the economic crisis.

A candidate accused of being Greek:

During the campaign, Ekrem İmamoğlu and his family, natives of Trabzon which hosted the kingdom of the Pontic Greeks in history, were constantly accused by the AKP of being ‘Greeks, therefore traitors’. Thus, AKP vice-president Nurettin Canikli claimed that ‘İmamoğlu’s brain is not at the service of the nation’, and Erdoğan called for ‘putting a big slap on those Byzantine remnants wanting to turn Istanbul into Constantinople’. But these racist attacks on Ekrem İmamoğlu actually backfired on the AKP because they strongly displeased Istanbul residents from the same region, and they irritated others. The fact that Ekrem İmamoğlu decided not to react to these attacks further emphasized his coolness and restraint and allowed him to differentiate himself from other Turkish politicians.

Taking advantage of an unfair campaign from the beginning

From the start of the election campaign, Ekrem İmamoğlu was well aware that he was facing a formidable opponent: 63-year-old Binali Yildirim, a heavyweight in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a close friend of the President of the Republic, to whom he served as Prime Minister. As the favorite in the race for Istanbul mayor, Binali Yildirim counted on the full support of Erdoğan, for whom ‘the survival of the nation’ was at stake with the election. A few days before the election, Erdoğan gave 14 speeches in two days, in the four corners of Istanbul, to support his candidate. And, sure of his victory, Binali Yildirim, who also benefitted from immense coverage by the media ‘in the pay’ of the AKP, put up posters all over the city with the inscription ‘thank you Istanbul’, without waiting for the election results.

But while everyone announced Binali Yildirim as the winner, Ekrem İmamoğlu managed to take advantage of this unequal situation and led a campaign that was surprisingly successful, carrying him to victory.

A unifying rhetoric and courteous manners

From the start of the campaign, Ekrem İmamoğlu imposed a new style and a new rhetoric that was quite different from the Turkish political landscape. He preferred to preach reconciliation and unity, with his soft voice and quiet confidence. His consensual and unifying speech even led some to compare him with former US President Barack Obama. A world away from Erdoğan’s rough manner, and the threats and ranting of AKP members, he even gave a hug to an old AKP supporter who refused to greet him during a visit to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. At first surprised by his manners, which were out of place on the Turkish political scene, voters finally appreciated his courtesy and his unifying rhetoric, seen in his slogan ‘Istanbul senin’ (‘your Istanbul’) and in his victory speech, where he announced he would be ‘the mayor of all’, even of those who did not vote for him.

Ekrem İmamoğlu’s courtesy and good manners were even more noticeable when his opponents start attacking him on his origins or his alleged links with terrorism. He absorbed blows without losing his composure or ‘getting embroiled in the violent verbal jousting that usually infests election campaigns in a polarized country’. And, even when the March elections were cancelled, he continued to use a unifying and consensual discourse, arguing, ‘I am not going to change my personality (…) On 23 June, we will show the whole of Turkey that there is no other way out than democracy and the ballot box’.

As Anthony Skinner, from the firm Verisk Maplecroft says, this soothing, moderate and unifying speech largely contributed to the growth of the candidate’s popularity, allowing him to go from the status of ‘the obscure outsider to the main standard-bearer for voters across Turkey who do not support the AKP’.

A positive campaign

In a country marked by political arrests and imprisonments, Ekrem İmamoğlu ran a campaign that did not hesitate to promise happiness and love, with the slogan ‘everything will be fine’ and the promise:

‘I bring peace to the people of Istanbul. My smiling expression makes people smile’.

A programme that criticizes the AKP head-on

During the campaign, Ekrem İmamoğlu, who rejects Erdoğan’s religious and authoritarian model of society, focused on ‘transparency, the end of clientelism, the defence of the most deprived and respect for all faiths’. These ambitious proposals in the programme were a direct criticism of the AKP.

Ekrem İmamoğlu also put forward major projects and ambitions for Istanbul, which he promoted as the ‘locomotive of Turkey’s democratic transformation’, where investors will be able to come ‘in complete security’, in a city that would be fair and equal for all its inhabitants.

Finally, as a member of the secular CHP party and a practising Muslim, he promised not to reverse the ban on the sale of alcohol in municipal cafés and maintain the segregated hours in swimming pools. He therefore managed to gather around him not only the opponents of Erdoğan, but also some voters disappointed in the Islamo-conservative party.

The ‘word of mouth’ technique

During the electoral campaign, the CHP candidate went from meeting to meeting with potential voters. He enjoyed meeting the crowd, unlike his opponent Binali Yildirim, austere and reserved, who favored almost confidential meetings. In this respect, once again, İmamoğlu stood out from his rival. He argued that his ‘main weapon in the field is the age-old technique of word of mouth’.

İmamoğlu aligned himself with his voters, highlighting his passion for football. A former semi-professional player, he often talked about his passion and ‘skilfully played his football card in a country obsessed with the round ball’. In fact, on 13 April 2019, he was attending a match at the Vodafone Stadium in Besiktas when the supporters started cheering and chanting ‘give the mandate to İmamoğlu’.

Social networks to bypass the powerful mainstream media

Faced with the unfairness of the campaign conditions and in particular the way the media covered the election, Ekrem İmamoğlu decided to use other means of communication, saying ‘we have social networks which are for the moment left alone by the power’. He embraced social networks instead of television screens, and his one-and-a-half minute ‘programme’ videos, published on YouTube, animated the entire campaign.

Forced to use social networks to get his messages across, Ekrem İmamoğlu managed to take advantage of the situation and built up a very large online audience. When asked about the few appearances he made in the traditional media, he replied, ‘my supporters follow me on the screen they hold in their hands.

Ekrem İmamoğlu’s popularity grew considerably after the cancellation of the first poll in March 2019. As Zilan Karakurt, one of the community managers of Ekrem İmamoğlu’s team, explained, ‘the number of his followers on Twitter, for example, went from 350,000 to 2.6 million. Between the first and second campaigns, it’s night and day’.

A coalition strategy

Ekrem İmamoğlu’s victory was also that of the strategic alliance of the opposition parties in Turkey. Kurds, Turks, Muslims and non-Muslims came together, in the Republican camp, to challenge Erdoğan’s power.

Letting opponents get it wrong

Throughout the campaign, Erdoğan constantly attacked and slandered İmamoğlu, likening him, for example, to Egypt’s General Sissi, who in 2013 deposed the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi. ‘Are we going to vote for Sissi or for Yıldırım this Sunday? That’s what matters!’, he exclaimed a few days before the June 2019 election.

President Erdogan, who was very invested in the campaign, tried to provoke the old fears of conservative Muslims, saying ‘the worst thing we can do in Istanbul is to let the fascism of the CHP fall like a nightmare on this city. We cannot allow this rabid minority, in conflict with the nation’s belief and Istanbul’s past, to deteriorate the ancient character of this city’.

However, these angry statements were counterproductive. These groups of voters who had been loyal to him until now did not respond well to this rhetoric and did not approve of Erdogan’s efforts to cancel the March election result.

Lessons from Ekrem İmamoğlu’s election campaign

Despite the differences specific to each country and society, Ekrem İmamoğlu’s victory can be rich in lessons for political leaders committed to democracy and freedom in states where these are trampled. To do so, one must:

– Show great courage and be prepared to face humiliation, intimidation, and threat.

– Identify and make good use of the freedom of social media platforms to communicate directly with voters

– Impose and maintain an individual style, not imitate the manner of opponents.

– Promote a positive, inspiring manifesto, and messages of hope.

– Know when and how to let opponents ‘fall into their own trap’.

– Combine online communication with actions on the ground, close to the voters.

– Build an opposition movement starting from the ground up, in the local communities in cities, as close as possible to the citizens.

– Know how to federate and build strong and unifying coalitions.