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The ambitious, troubled İstanbul mayor taking on Erdoğan

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İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu vowed to fight for a democratic revolution after initially being stripped of his victory over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ally in a 2019 election.

The smooth-talking opposition figure’s impressive win in a rerun election three months later turned him into one of the rising stars threatening to break Erdoğan’s two-decade domination of Turkish politics.

But an İstanbul criminal court ruled Wednesday that İmamoğlu’s offhand remark to reporters that the city’s election officials were “idiots” was defamatory and sentenced him to nearly three years in prison.

It also barred him from politics for the duration of the sentence.

İmamoğlu has appealed, meaning that he will continue serving as mayor while putting his fate in the hands of judges whose impartiality he questions all the time.

The case highlights İmamoğlu’s struggles since the heady days when he attracted global attention by showing that Erdoğan — who prides himself on never losing an election — was not invincible.

The 68-year-old Turkish leader launched his own political career as a fiery mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s.

İmamoğlu may have been thinking of doing the same when he got Turkey’s fractured opposition parties to rally around his mayoral candidacy three years ago.

“What we are doing now is a fight for democracy,” İmamoğlu told AFP in an interview conducted between the two rounds of voting.

“It will of course be a revolution once we carry it to its conclusion.”

Protest wave

İmamoğlu’s rise from local İstanbul district leader to mayor came on an anti-Erdoğan wave that allowed opposition parties to take power in Turkey’s most important cities — including the capital, Ankara.

Some voters were rebelling against the sweeping purges that followed a failed putsch in 2016.

Others were disenchanted by an economic crisis that erupted with a breakdown in Turkish-US relations in 2018.

A new breed of leaders from the staunchly secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), such as İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş in Ankara, provided a clear alternative to Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But İmamoglu and Yavaş have taken sharply different courses since their joint victories in 2019.

Yavaş now ranks as the most likely potential candidate to beat Erdoğan in the presidential election slated for June 2023.

Analysts believe the secret to Yavas’s success lies in his decision to steer clear of national politics and to focus on fixing Ankara’s problems.

Not so İmamoğlu.

The İstanbul mayor crafts his media image and runs viral social media campaigns that both raise his profile and — based on Twitter responses — grate on many voters’ nerves.

State media have turned him into a hate figure, and polls show him having a far tougher time against Erdoğan in a likely second round runoff than most other opposition leaders.

His troubles are compounded by Erdoğan taking credit for many of the grand projects that have made Istanbul into a more livable city in recent years.


İmamoğlu has never hidden his presidential ambitions.

He studied business administration at İstanbul University and completed a master’s degree in management before entering his family’s construction business.

His love of football pushed him to become an administrator with his hometown team in the Black Sea port of Trabzon.

He soon joined the main opposition party and was elected mayor of the up-and-coming Beylikdüzü district on the European side of İstanbul in 2014.

İmamoğlu told reporters this year that he was not thinking of running for president “at this time.”

He will have to tread carefully should the courts make him eligible to run for higher office any time soon.

Pro-government media were filled with images from surveillance cameras in January showing him having dinner at a fish restaurant with the UK ambassador.

İstanbul was then digging out from under a snowstorm, and the pictures played into government portrayals of the mayor as out of touch and Western-backed.

His attempts to court state media backfired with a furor over a photo of his meeting with pro-government reporters aboard his tour bus in May.

İmamoğlu shut down his spokesman’s entire department after the photo emerged.


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