In a bright, sunlit conference room, Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, crosses his arms and leans back in his chair. Deputies flip through a slideshow showing images of the city’s public squares. “The work should be visible,” İmamoğlu presses them, in reference to plans to revamp a square in the outlying district of Bakırköy, after demanding faster progress on another in the conservative neighbourhood of Üsküdar. “I’m already scheduled to walk through that site next week,” he says.
The plate glass window of the conference room faces directly onto the hillside of Kasımpaşa, the Istanbul district where the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, grew up, and his presence as well as that of his Justice and Development party (AKP) were felt even in the conference room of İmamoğlu appointees loyal to the opposition Republican People’s party (CHP).
İmamoğlu strives to position himself as Erdoğan’s opposite, an erudite and committed social democrat, despite their shared roots on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. To his critics, he has been too eager to grab power, strengthening his public profile with a visit to the Munich security conference or creating an unofficial partnership between Istanbul and Athens, still the capital of an ancient enemy for many in the Turkish government. But for his supporters, he represents Turkey’s best hope of challenging Erdoğan’s two-decade rule and the country’s slide towards autocracy, including the prospect that he could rise above the fray within the CHP to run for president in an election expected next year if not earlier.
His political rise could soon meet its toughest obstacle yet. An Istanbul court is expected to rule this week on whether he insulted election officials, and if found guilty he risks being banned from politics altogether. A key ally, Canan Kaftancıoğlu, was recently served prison time and a political ban for her comments on social media, years after she spearheaded efforts to help İmamoğlu’s second electoral victory in 2019 after Erdoğan and the AKP demanded a re-run of the initial vote.
İmamoğlu has pledged to appeal against any ban, and pointed to the surge in public support he achieved between the first ballot and the re-run in 2019.
That İmamoğlu now occupies a seat that Erdoğan once did 30 years ago clearly represents a thorn in the president’s side, not least because it immediately vaulted him into position as potential challenger. Polls bear this out, showing İmamoğlu in a far better position to beat Erdoğan than the bespectacled elder statesman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu who heads the CHP, and close to the Ankara mayor, Mansur Yavaş, who is the current frontrunner.
Pressed on whether he is weighing up a presidential run, İmamoğlu smiles and decline. “I have no agenda regarding the presidential election or the presidency,” he says.
İmamoğlu’s candidacy would represent a major internal challenge for the CHP. Polls show him ahead of the party favourite, Kılıçdaroğlu, and his supporters believe he can appeal to minorities over the former nationalist Yavaş, but a presidential run would require him to vacate his seat, handing Turkey’s most populous city back to the AKP due to a quirk of electoral law. Asked how he would square this circle, he demurs. “The solution for that problem should come from Turkey’s table of six,” he says, in reference to the heads of Turkey’s opposition coalition.
“I think he has always seen himself as the frontrunner in the presidential race,” says Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Winning Istanbul wasn’t easy, although he didn’t do it alone. That kind of victory meant that from the first day he took office, it made him a candidate for the presidency.”
But visibility for his achievements during his three years in office is clearly a constant struggle for the mayor. He requires city council and sometimes government approval for his projects, and the AKP’s control of both stonewalls many of his more ambitious plans. The government even began constructing its own metro line in Istanbul separate from the transit system run by İmamoğlu’s office, undermining his efforts to overhaul the city’s infrastructure, including a high-profile fight over a crippling taxi shortage.
“We’re saddened by this,” he says. “We’re really trying to find solutions. What’s happened is partly comic, partly tragic, particularly when it comes to transport … for three years we’ve been trying to solve the taxi problem and other issues, but all our decisions are being blocked.”
Jumping at every opportunity to claim the opposition is unable to run Turkey’s largest city of more than 15 million people, the staunchly pro-government domestic media have lambasted him for everything from handling a large snowfall improperly to walking with his hands behind his back at a shrine. Reaching Istanbulites means using İmamoğlu’s 7 million Twitter followers or posters displaying his smiling face next to projects around the city.
Have these roadblocks during his time as mayor convinced him that keeping Turkey’s presidential system, rather than returning to parliamentary democracy as the CHP has pledged to do, might make ruling the entire country a little easier? “A social democrat does not fall for this temptation,” he says.