Istanbul’s Mayor Says His Victory Is a Warning for Populists
(Bloomberg) -- Istanbul’s new mayor says his election victory against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party carries an important lesson for the world’s populist leaders: Act against the will of the people you claim to represent, and you’ll lose it all.
Ekrem Imamoglu is adamant that’s what happened when the ruling party’s candidate lost the race for city hall this year.
“The democratic stance put forth by Turkey this year proved the following: if you’re not acting in line with people’s interests, demands, freedom and rights, you get sent out,” Imamoglu told Bloomberg TV. “It’s a very valuable stance at a world where populism has made its peak.”
The 49-year-old former businessman spoke in London, where he’s meeting finance executives as he seeks funding for plans to transform Istanbul, the country’s commercial capital, into a regional hub for finance and trade.
In some ways, Istanbul was already a bit of that before Imamoglu took over in June -- the city accounts for more than half of Turkey’s $722 billion economy. And that’s partly because of what Erdogan himself has achieved, first as mayor from 1994 to 1998 and then as prime minister and president since 2003.
Half of Turkey’s 60 million or so voters continue to support Erdogan, who oversaw a tripling of the economy, built new highways and vastly expanded health care for poorer Turks.
But his authoritarian turn over the past decade has left many of the rest disillusioned. While the president has often claimed he’s merely implementing the will of the people, the other half of the electorate has increasingly felt left out of the new order Erdogan has built, victory after victory, at the ballot box.
Erdogan’s track record of winning pretty much every single election he ever entered made this year’s Istanbul race look like an easy victory for his candidate. But his image of invincibility was dismantled by Imamoglu, who was initially seen by many as an underdog.
As the joint candidate of Turkey’s opposition led by the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, he beat Erdogan’s pick in March by a slender margin.
After authorities decided to annul the vote following Erdogan’s accusations of electoral fraud, Imamoglu defeated the president’s Justice and Development party for a second time in June, this time by a margin nearing a million votes.
His inclusive campaign attempted to reach beyond party lines, and Imamoglu’s characteristic smile was a defining motif of the contest.
Read More: Turkey’s Imamoglu Takes Office as Istanbul’s Mayor After 2nd Win
Imamoglu won’t openly admit to having presidential aspirations. But he knows he needs to have something to show for his years in office if he wants to make the jump from the mayor’s office to the center of national politics.
His office is weighing whether it should try to raise $500 million through a bond sale, something that’s sure to come up as he meets representatives of the financial community in London.
But that’s a small slice of Istanbul’s consolidated annual budget of about $9 billion, Imamoglu said. The city’s subway construction project that’s currently underway will cost at least $2 billion, then there are plans to protect Istanbul from the fallout of climate change. The projects will eventually pay for themselves through revenue they generate, he added.
“The only thing in my mind is to be very successful, and one of the most democratic mayors around the world,” Imamoglu said, answering repeated questions about the widely-held belief that he’ll one day take on Erdogan. “If you work hard, then people want to send you where they think you fit without you even planning for it.”
The mayor injected a large dose of dynamism into an anti-Erdogan camp that had begun to believe that Turkey’s longtime leader -- the only one some citizens have ever known -- was infallible. Imamoglu has been careful not to attack Erdogan directly but doesn’t rule out running against him when elections are held -- currently scheduled for 2023.
That makes Imamoglu’s opinions important even though some of the most difficult issues facing Turkish policy makers currently lie outside his political brief. From deteriorating ties with traditional allies in the West to increased concern over the independence of the nation’s central bank, he said Turkey’s problems boil down to the populist practices of a political elite that’s feeling too empowered for its own good.
Opponents of strongmen in other countries have taken notice. Among Imamoglu’s visitors was Gergely Karacsony, who later became mayor of Budapest by defeating a candidate backed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Imamoglu said with a touch of pride that his triumph has inspired opposition figures around the world.
“This democratic stance shows that if you don’t do the right thing in national government, these people will send you out,” he said.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.