All eyes on Imamoglu’s bid to hold Istanbul in Turkey's local elections

All eyes on Imamoglu’s bid to hold Istanbul in Turkey's local elections
Imamoglu achieved a stunning victory back in 2019.
By bne IntelliNews March 28, 2024

Turkey will hold nationwide local elections on Sunday March 31, but the headline contest by far will be in Istanbul where Ekrem Imamoglu—the politician who dented President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aura of invincibility in 2019 by defeating the ruling party candidate to win the mayorship of the cultural and economic capital—will attempt to win re-election.

Voters of the pro-Kurdish DEM party (previously known as the HDP party) were five years ago crucial to that win, which saw them lend Imamoglu their votes, as the main opposition CHP party candidate shocked Erdogan and ended a quarter century of rule by his AKP party and its Islamist predecessors. However, the opposition coalition that went down to a resounding defeat as Erdogan and his allies triumphed in last year’s parliamentary and presidential elections has dissolved in disarray and DEM is running its own candidates across Turkey, including in Istanbul.

How many Kurds will nevertheless put aside party loyalty and back Imamoglu on Sunday?

Erdogan's man Murat Kurum (Credit:

The impression given by what polls there are—with many polls in Turkey seen as unreliable—is that Imamoglu and AKP challenger Murat Kurum are neck-and-neck.

"They are confused and undecided," Yuksel Genc at pollster SAMER told Reuters in reference to Istanbul’s Kurdish voters. Genc, who said 40% of DEM supporters had indicated they would vote for Imamoglu, added: "They are considering voting for their party candidate but don't want the AKP to win."

Roj Girasun, director of Rawest Research, was reported by the news service as saying that DEM and CHP had reached a deal over some areas of Istanbul, making it easier for DEM voters to support Imamoglu rather than DEM mayoral candidate Meral Danis Bestas, with around half of them inclined to do so.

Erdogan, who was Istanbul mayor between 1994-1998, has slammed the apparent deal as a "dirty bargain".

Unlike in 2019, Imamoglu, 53, is also running without the backing of the nationalist IYI (Good) opposition party, leaving him to campaign alone. He is also up against wide-ranging apathy. Many anti-AKP Turks believe it has become nigh on impossible to defeat the Erdogan regime. Plenty of voters are convinced that last year’s national elections were fixed by behind-the-scenes actors.

“It will certainly be a tight race [in Istanbul] ... A sense of apathy has set in among the opposition supporters after the defeat in the general elections,” said Berkay Mandiraci of International Crisis Group told the Guardian. “The fragmentation of the opposition has fuelled perceptions that change is ever less likely.”

As ever, Erdogan remains Turkey’s defiant leader, despite being widely blamed for economic mismanagement that has caused an excruciating economic crisis, complete with rampant inflation, officially measured at 81% y/y in Istanbul in February, and a collapsed lira. An authoritarian also known for trampling on human rights, he is very much a love-him-or hate-him character for Turks and perhaps the best hope for Imamoglu is that the determination of Erdogan to retake Istanbul means he is perceived as the mayor’s true opponent, rather than Kurum, a 47-year-old former environment minister. That could energise some of the anti-regime vote.

On the other hand, there is also the widespread feeling that it really doesn’t matter who is in power in Istanbul—a city of at least 16mn that represents a third of Turkey’s GDP—because it is the central government powers-that-be call the meaningful shots.

Defeat for Imamoglu, often described as a talented orator, could deal a fatal blow to any ambition he has of one day dethroning 70-year-old Erdogan or an anointed successor to claim the presidency.

Winning back Istanbul “is critical for Erdogan’s plan to extend his grip on power and, simultaneously, to sideline his main political nemesis,” Wolfango Piccoli, the co-president of consulting firm Teneo, told Bloomberg. Victory would also allow the president and the AKP to regain control of financial resources that are key to sustaining their network of support, he added.

A newly emerged threat to Erdogan’s attempt to turf Imamoglu from office is a conservative Islamist group called the New Welfare Party. Until now allied to the AKP, it is campaigning on the disastrous state of the economy—“I’m protesting [against] Erdogan,” one New Welfare Party supporter in Istanbul was quoted as saying by Bloomberg on March 28, adding: “Only foreigners can enjoy living in this city”—but also on Erdogan’s approach to Israel’s war on the Palestinians in Gaza.

Though Erdogan almost daily delivers fiery rhetoric in condemnation of Israel, critics point out that Turkey maintains substantial commercial ties with the country, despite calls for a trade embargo.

"They have a more radical, anti-Israeli stance and this makes them popular among radical Islamists," Yetkin Report analyst Murat Yetkin told Reuters, describing New Welfare.

Polls indicate that the party’s support may have doubled to 5%. Such backing would eat into votes that may otherwise have gone to the AKP.

In all, Turkey’s municipal elections will be held across 81 provinces, with the CHP also looking to hold on to the capital Ankara, which it won in 2019.

Polling stations will be open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. in eastern provinces and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m (local time) in the rest of the country. Initial results are expected by 10 p.m. (1900 GMT) on Sunday.