This week in Istanbul, people gathered in parks and at ferry stations, their eyes trained on large, inflatable screens. On leafy residential blocks, the glow of televisions filtered out into the street.
For the first time in 17 years, Turkey had a televised, moderated election debate.
The show's stars weren’t running for president, or even a national office. They are hoping to become the mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, after the ruling party canceled the results of the first election. In the weeks since, the race has become a tacit measure of the ruling party’s waning popularity and the lengths they may go to remain in power.
“If Ekrem İmamoğlu wins the election, the AKP is about to collapse.”
“If Ekrem İmamoğlu wins the election, the AKP is about to collapse,” a 26-year-old film student claimed, sitting on a blanket with friends. He asked that his name not be used, citing an arrest at a protest some years ago.
At this park in Kadıköy, one of Istanbul’s more secular neighborhoods, most people are fans of İmamoğlu, the opposition candidate. After an arduous recount process, he narrowly won the first election by about 13,000 votes.
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With dark hair and glasses, 49-year-old İmamoğlu comes off as young, perhaps a bit nerdy as he makes the case for why the original election results should be honored. After all, he says, voters cast ballots for citywide and local offices together, in the same envelope. If the result for the Istanbul mayor’s seat is false, why didn’t the election board require a recount for all local offices?
His opponent is Binali Yıldırım, representing the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Yıldırım is a veteran of Turkish politics with a graying mustache. At 64, he has served as Turkey’s longest-running transport minister, and briefly as prime minister. When asked about the renewed election, he maintained that the votes were tainted.
The TV debate stays cordial. But viewers in the park are unsatisfied.
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“I think they stole it, you know?” said Tolga Cetinkaya, a schoolteacher. “They are not right. I think the people will see.”
Since 2002, Turkey has been led by the AKP, a pro-business, moderately Islamist party. A surging economy fueled their popularity, allowing leaders like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to expand control over the government, the judiciary and the media.
But this past March, amid growing concerns over the party’s human rights record and a stumbling economy, Turkish voters elected opposition candidates to lead the country’s largest cities — chief among them Istanbul, where Erdoğan famously gained his foothold in politics as the city’s mayor.
“Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey,” Erdoğan has often remarked at campaign rallies.
Istanbul is home to 15 million people and has been one of the world's largest cities for over 1,500 years. Its factories, shipyards and commercial firms produce nearly a third of Turkey’s gross domestic product. Its mayor controls a $4 billion budget
This was a loss that the AKP could not accept. Alongside a nationalist ally party, the AKP appealed to Turkey’s election board to throw out the results, claiming it found voting irregularities. İmamoğlu was allowed to take office briefly in April, but the election board soon came forward and announced that it had accepted the ruling party's appeal to throw out the results and would schedule a do-over.
“The rhetoric on the AK Party side was that this was a rigged election, and they deserved to win.”
“The rhetoric on the AK Party side was that this was a rigged election, and they deserved to win,” said economist Can Selçuki of EDAM, an Istanbul-based think tank.
“But of course, the main reason people didn’t turn out on March 31st was economics,” he said. “Mainly unemployment and inflation, and the depreciation of the lira.”
Now, the decision goes back to the voters.
İmamoğlu — the suburban mayor that could
As the rescheduled election draws near, Turkish media is flush with heated rhetoric and conspiracy theories hoping to discredit İmamoğlu. In one case, an AKP deputy chairman suggested that the candidate was secretly Greek, and therefore potentially unfaithful to the Turkish nation. But instead of coming out swinging in response, İmamoğlu has opted for an optimistic, inclusive tone.
“Her şey çok güzel olacak,” his campaign posters say, the Turkish equivalent of “Everything is going to be just fine.”
İmamoğlu is a relative newcomer to Turkish politics. In his last post, he served as the district mayor of Beylikdüzü, a politically diverse, outlying section of Istanbul.
“A few years after he became the mayor of Beylikdüzü, his approval ratings were through the roof in a constituency where you still have a lot of AKP supporters,” Selçuki said. “That’s where he first caught the attention.”
In a way, Beylikdüzü represents what’s happening in Turkey: migration to cities from the rural heartland, and the upward mobility of more conservative Turks who were often sidelined under previous governments. The district is marked by tall, high-end apartment buildings and leafy parks. It’s about an hour away by bus from the grit and traffic of Istanbul’s central, older neighborhoods.
“When we came here, it was like a farm. There weren’t any cars,” explained Şeyma Gültekin, 31.
Gültekin moved to Beylikdüzü 20 years ago with her family, when Istanbul’s population was about half of what it is today. She says İmamoğlu has done some things for Beylikdüzü in the past few years. But the party that built the infrastructure and grew this sleepy district into a high-end suburb? That was the AKP.
“We vote Binali Yıldırım. Forever Binali Yıldırım,” she said.
Others aren’t so sure. At Beylikdüzü’s Sunday market, shoppers wend their way among vegetable sellers and coolers full of cheese and yogurt. T-shirts, bras and running shoes hang from the ceiling.
“There is no economy, my girl. It’s broken. Everything is expensive. We can’t even sell our products, the people have no money.”
“There is no economy, my girl. It’s broken,” says Fatma Guruk, 70, who sells white and brown eggs from her chickens in a nearby village.
“Everything is expensive. We can’t even sell our products, the people have no money,” she said.
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Those in power spend their wealth on political campaigns, not the people, she said. İmamoğlu gives her hope that things will get better for those with less.
Voters in Istanbul return to the polls on June 23. But the whole country will be watching closely.