His rivals refused to accept his election victory – so he went back to the polls and won again. Now Istanbul’s new mayor is ready to change the city and get rid of a web of corruption.
Ekrem Imamoglu has won the battle to be mayor of Istanbul twice – both this year. The first time was in March, when he triumphed by a margin of 25,000 votes (reduced to 16,000 in a recount), beating the candidate of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party (Akp). That election was disputed through the courts by the Akp and, in June, fresh elections were held; that time Imamoglu won by more than 800,000 votes.
Previously mayor of an Istanbul suburb, Imamoglu triumphed by campaigning to end the Akp’s patronage networks that had come to anger Istanbulites, who were also fed up with the weakening economy and rampant inflation of recent years. His victory was a shock to Erdogan’s dominance in Turkish politics and has revived the Republican People’s party (Chp), the nation’s main opposition. Armed with natural charisma and broad electoral appeal, Imamoglu has become a prominent opposition force, feeding rumours that he will challenge Erdogan in the 2023 presidential elections. But first he must prove his worth by leading Istanbul, a city of 16 million and Turkey’s most important commercial hub.
We spoke to the mayor in Istanbul about his ambitions for the city and his efforts to bridge the gap in Turkey’s highly polarised society.
What is your background and what inspired you to get into politics?
I have been in the business world since I was eight years old. Both my grandfather and my father ran a construction company in Istanbul and I got into sales through them. I went to university to study business management and became an executive for our company. It was then that I started running into problems in local administrations. I saw that these problems could be solved easily so I decided to get into politics to improve the liveability of our city. I worked as the chair for the Chp in Istanbul’s Beylikduzu district for five years and then as the district’s mayor for five years. I used that time to clean up the local administration – and I still act with the same sentiments now that I have been elected mayor of Istanbul.
What have you been focusing on in your first months as mayor?
My biggest dream is to make Istanbul a city where people are happy to live. Our priorities are the metro, green spaces and urban poverty, and we have taken action in many areas. We will provide more aid for low-income families and districts. It’s our goal to implement nursery and education-support projects so that newborns and children live in a better environment and will receive stronger education options. We will also accelerate our promises of job opportunities for the unemployed youth. We’re taking this on in a balanced manner. I work hard: when I sleep five hours a day, I consider it too long. I open my eyes with work and close them with work. I’m not complaining at all; that’s what I told the citizens I would do.
Many credit your victory to your equal appeal among conservative and liberal voters, and minority groups such as the Kurds and Alevis. How do you plan to serve these communities?
I see everyone as equals. We have implemented this philosophy while serving the people. We will set an example for the entire country with what we create locally.
Observers have said that Erdogan’s presidential decrees and ministers in Ankara can have an impact on Istanbul’s budget. Do you expect this?
There have been concerns about Ankara’s influence but we will govern Istanbul and the Akp government will govern Turkey; there is no excuse for them to do otherwise. We will oversee the resources belonging to the 16 million Istanbul citizens and do the right thing. There is an Akp majority in the municipal assembly that could create obstacles [by blocking votes on budget reforms and delaying municipal meetings, for instance]; to avert this we started live-streaming our assembly meetings. Voters can now watch their government in action and evaluate their representatives accordingly.
During the elections, many voters took issue with the large Syrian refugee population in Istanbul. What can be done to address tensions?
We are talking about one million refugees in this city and, unfortunately, many of them are unregistered. What country would not struggle with this scenario? The problems experienced by women and children refugees – those who are married at a young age, those who are subjected to violence and those who are harassed – make my heart hurt. To address such issues in the short term we have almost finished establishing a refugee help desk staffed with local administrators and representatives of the displaced community. Through the authority afforded to us we will work so that refugees can live more safely and peacefully in Istanbul. However, I must state that it is our priority to register all unregistered refugees and, in time, safely return them to their countries. We are not going to victimise anyone; we just want to prevent refugees and the people of my city rolling into a problem that cannot be overcome in the future.
During your campaign you promised to cut wasteful spending. What measures are you taking to address the controversial spending practices of your predecessors, as seen by the lavish funding of NGOs and foundations run by Erdogan’s family members and party allies?
If unjust expenses are made, those responsible will, of course, be held to account by law or by administrative means. However, we will not do any special work to investigate past administrations. We are focusing on our term and will implement the principles of oversight and transparency to prevent waste. We have plans to bring national or international inspection bodies into our municipal units. We will also employ all available mechanisms to eliminate irregularities and the misuse of public tenders.
Turkey has undergone an economic downturn as a result of political turbulence. How will you restore confidence in Istanbul’s business sector and revive tourism?
Istanbul is one of the most important cities in the world. Its production power and human capital is enormous. I’m a businessperson; I know mistakes have been made in the real-estate sector. I also know that we have strong potential in the tourism sector. We will appeal to more tourists by creating new activities in museums and arts centres. It’s our goal to increase the number of events that appeal to Europeans and to make the existing ones more effective. As the municipality, we will do our part by demonstrating good and reliable governance, by bolstering democratic norms and by mobilising all available resources to support an attractive business climate. For example, we will develop better transport networks and focus on infrastructure projects that will facilitate both business and tourism in the city.
What is your vision for Istanbul?
One of the issues that I focused on during the election campaign was that Istanbul needs a vision. Unfortunately those who ruled this beautiful city for the last 25 years have left Istanbul without one. There is no vision for this city in terms of architecture, size, commerce nor the environment. Yet Istanbul is one of the most important cities in the world. For these reasons my vision will focus on providing the best services we can in the coming years: more green spaces, schools, trade, environmental initiatives, tourism, transport and human resources, and increasing investment potential. We must do this for Istanbul, otherwise we will not fulfil our duties.
From barbers to artists, here Istanbul residents predict how Imamoglu will impact their city and Turkey’s political dynamics. In a country polarised by a violent coup attempt and a march towards authoritarianism, some say that his inclusive rhetoric has revitalised the opposition; others are less optimistic.
“He will bring more freedom and democracy into our political system. Once you secure those two foundations, other problems will be resolved.”
Municipal street sweeper
“First, he represents the ideology of our nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Second, there were many unnecessary expenses in our municipal budget; he’s cutting corruption by ending wasteful spending.”
“He will do the best he can with the circumstances in this country. Though I hope he can better manage the issue of Syrian refugees: there are too many in Istanbul. He needs to distribute them to other cities so that they don’t put stress on our public services, which are limited.”
“I oppose him and support the Akp. There is no way he will succeed with his plans. He is building friendships with Kurdish terrorist organisations. No matter what he does, our political system will stay the same.”
“Imamoglu doesn’t use populism or majoritarian politics to gain power. He will represent minorities and increase equality in our city. All municipal workers now eat the same meals, from the executive staff to the metro workers.”
“He will contribute to the minority-rights struggle and he has shown good intentions by visiting Kurdish towns in the east. If he manages to avoid going mainstream, which in this country means conservative, then he will make a big impact on Turkey’s Kurdish, Alevi and LGBT communities.”