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Meet the man who defeated Erdoğan three times in a row

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There is only one man who has challenged President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in three consecutive elections and won each time, and that was on his home turf of İstanbul, Turkey’s economic capital.

Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) member Ekrem İmamoğlu will be İstanbul mayor for another term by finishing ahead of his rival, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate Murat Kurum.

According to unofficial results with more than 90 percent of the ballots counted, İmamoğlu garnered more than 50.8 percent of the vote in İstanbul, while Kurum won 40.2 percent.

“We have 96 percent of the results and are ahead by over a million votes. The residents of İstanbul have entrusted us with the responsibility for the coming term,” İmamoğlu told reporters at a live press conference.

This result came about despite the fact that Erdoğan ran an intensive election campaign in İstanbul, in which he and 17 of his ministers called on the people of İstanbul to vote for Kurum, and İmamoğlu also lacked the support of the other opposition parties.

İmamoğlu ended years of AKP rule in İstanbul by winning a rerun of the 2019 election. Erdoğan’s governance of İstanbul, however, predates the AKP, as he was thrust into the political scene and made a name for himself when he won the 1994 local elections and became mayor of İstanbul. He was in office until 1998, when he was removed by a court for a speech that earned him a 10-month prison sentence.

Twenty-five years later, in 2019, İmamoğlu came out on top on March 31, albeit by a narrow margin. This was too much for Erdoğan, and after the AKP objected, claiming irregularities and accusing the opposition of “election theft,” the mayoral election was annulled and repeated on June 23, 2019. İmamoğlu won by a landslide against former prime minister Binali Yıldırım of the AKP.

What İmamoğlu did could be described as Fabian tactics. Just like the undefeated Hannibal of Carthage, Erdoğan’s political rhetoric would devour anyone who tried to keep up with his frontal assaults.

İmamoğlu chose instead to ignore Erdoğan’s polarizing discourse, which engenders tension, and focused on a positive campaign that conveyed messages of hope. “Everything will be fine,” he repeatedly told İstanbul residents on the campaign trail.

One difference between Sunday and 2019 is that five years ago, he had the support of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the predecessor of the DEM Party, as well as the nationalist opposition İYİ (Good) Party.

İmamoğlu has now shown that his brand is above political parties and that the opposition has no power over their voters when it comes to who they elect as mayor.

He courted the votes of Kurds and Turks alike, but lacking the support of the opposition, his big advantage came from elsewhere, namely the anger and frustration with the ruling AKP, especially as regards the ailing economy and the financial hardship it is causing İstanbul residents, where the high cost of living is hitting the hardest.

Since the November 2015 general election, the AKP has bled hundreds of thousands of voters in İstanbul, which can be seen in the results of the 2017 constitutional referendum, the 2018 parliamentary and presidential elections, the 2019 local elections and the 2023 general election.

İmamoğlu’s victory cemented his position as an outstanding figure in Turkish politics.

His path from mayor of the Beylikdüzü district to mayor of İstanbul was marked by significant successes and controversies.

Born to a pious family in the northeastern city of Trabzon, İmamoğlu’s early life was characterized by the values of hard work and education.

His entry into politics, influenced by family ties to the Motherland Party (ANAP) and later by his alignment with the CHP, underscores a career marked by both personal convictions and pragmatic political maneuvering.

İmamoğlu’s tenure as mayor of İstanbul is noteworthy for initiatives aimed at tackling the city’s pressing challenges, from environmental issues to socioeconomic inequalities.

His efforts to clean up the Golden Horn and replace horse-drawn transportation on the Princes Islands with environmentally friendly alternatives show his commitment to sustainable urban development, his supporters say.

İmamoğlu was charged and convicted of “insulting election officials” before the elections in May of last year. According to observers, this was a move by Erdoğan to prevent him from running against him, which some say succeeded.

His role in the 2023 presidential election, where he supported CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and attacks during a pro-Kılıçdaroğlu rally in Erzurum are another example of the controversial and often dangerous nature of Turkish politics.

Despite these challenges, İmamoğlu’s resilience and popularity point to a possible future in higher political office, with speculation of a possible run in the 2028 presidential election.

İmamoğlu’s political ideology is rooted in social democracy and secularism.

His fight against corruption, reflected in his actions combatting what he sees as “wasteful spending,” and his commitment to multiculturalism and climate action represent a progressive agenda that resonates with many İstanbul residents.

Time will tell whether he runs against Erdoğan in the 2028 presidential election or whether Erdoğan will go into an unlikely retirement, but the world will surely hear İmamoğlu’s name often over the next four years.

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