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Opposition Istanbul Mayoral Candidate Shaking Up Turkish Politics

He doesn’t like fighting, preaches reconciliation rather than confrontation, and campaigns through social media rather than television.

That approach has made Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition candidate in this week’s re-run vote for Istanbul mayor, the antithesis of the man who has dominated Turkish politics for much of the past two decades: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Throughout his career, Erdogan has made a virtue of political street-fighting, often accusing opponents of links to terror groups or seeking to undermine the country.

Imamoglu seems to have come from nowhere in the last few months with a radically different approach: “I have never fought in my life but have never been beaten either,” he tells rallies.

In a country deeply divided between secularists and religious conservatives, Imamoglu’s decision to use unifying rhetoric has been a breath of fresh air for many voters.

It is starkly different from the style of previous figures from his Republican People’s Party (CHP).

In 2018, for example, when the CHP’s Muharrem Ince challenged Erdogan in the presidential election, his tough-talking oratory was taken straight out of his opponent’s playbook.

‘I see hope’

Even after being controversially stripped of his narrow victory in the March mayoral election — forcing this Sunday’s re-run — Imamoglu has still tried to keep the mood positive.

That decision by the election authorities followed claims of “serious corruption” by Erdogan, whose political party and its predecessors have controlled the metropolis for 25 years.

Despite huge anger among his supporters, Imamoglu did not call people out on to the streets, although there were some small protests. Intead, he vowed to fight to get back “what we have already won”.

“There is no need for protests or that kind of action. This is not our method,” he told AFP in an interview. “We will fight for democracy at the ballot box.”

The imagery and messaging has clear parallels to positive campaigns from around the world, with pictures that recall the iconic posters of Barack Obama from his 2008 presidential run.

“I look at the people of Istanbul and I see hope. You know what hope is? To see the light even in the dark,” Imamoglu said when he kicked off the latest campaign in May.

Born in 1970 in the Black Sea coastal city of Trabzon in northeast Turkey, Imamoglu worked in the family construction business before entering local politics a decade ago.

Elected mayor of Istanbul’s Beylikduzu district in 2014, Imamoglu was almost unknown at the beginning of the March campaign when his party fielded him as a surprise candidate for the mega-city of 15 million people.

Although he wasn’t running himself, Erdogan dominated the airwaves.

The president’s almost daily speeches described the local elections as crucial to the nation’s survival as he called on voters to back his party’s candidate, former prime minister Binali Yildirim.

Anthony Skinner, director at the risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft, said Imamoglu’s focus on inclusivity, dignity and compassion –- coupled with his record as a competent administrator –- accounts for his large and expanded base of support in Istanbul.

“Imamoglu has risen from being a relatively obscure underdog prior to the abortive March (vote) to the chief flag-bearer of hope for constituents across Turkey who do not support the AKP” and it’s right-wing ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

‘Night and day’

Although he has recently found some space in mainstream media, which is often accused of following the government line, Imamoglu has been forced to focus primarily on social media.

“My people are already following me from the screen in their hands,” Imamoglu said.

Zilan Karakurt, who regularly films live videos of Imamoglu’s campaign, described social media as their primary weapon.

“The state of Turkey’s media is well known. We couldn’t find enough space ahead of the March 31 campaign,” he told AFP between rallies.

“Social media is right now the biggest strength in our hands, so we’ve been using it effectively since the very beginning.”

Karakurt said Imamoglu’s popularity had grown enormously since being stripped of his election victory. His clips had gone from around 25-30,000 views in March to a million or more. His Twitter following had also grown dramatically, from 350,000 to 2.6 million.

The difference between his first campaign and the one for the rerun, said Karakurt, had been like “night and day”.

Some pro-government outlets have tried to suggest that Imamoglu is backed by Turkey’s historic rival, Greece — or even that he is secretly Greek himself.

But such tactics appear to have backfired, said Skinner.

“The fact that Imamoglu has largely resisted being drawn into a dirty campaign of mud-slinging is a strength and differentiates him from other politicians in Turkey,” Skinner said.

Karakurt meanwhile, remained confident about Imamoglu’s style.

“We believe a positive campaign will always win because the truth always wins… Our mayor has changed the language in politics.”

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