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Erdogan aims to retake Istanbul after presidential victory

Erdogan aims to retake Istanbul after presidential victory


Editors note: A version of this story appears on CNN. Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a thrice-weekly look inside the region’s biggest stories. Register here.


The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan extended his rule into a third decade thereafter Sunday’s presidential election the victory. His achievement, however, fell short of the city of Istanbul, a strategic and personal crown jewel, which the leader is determined to recapture in 10 months.

Speaking atop a campaign bus outside his Istanbul residence on Sunday, Erdogan sang to a crowd of cheering supporters and announced his next step to take back the city in March 2024 municipal elections.

Now we have 2024 ahead of us, Erdogan said. You understand what I’m saying, right? Are you ready to win Uskudar (a big district in Istanbul) and Istanbul in local elections in 2024? Then let’s not stop.

By regaining Istanbul, Erdogan means it will be governed by a mayor from his Justice and Development Party (AK).

Once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul is today the largest and most populous city in Turkey. It is the country’s economic powerhouse and home to nearly 16 million people, a quarter of the Turkish electorate.

The city was ruled for 25 years by an Islamist party, first by the Welfare Party, of which Erdogan was a member, and then by the AK Party until the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) won its presidency in 2019 under Ekrem Imamoglu. Before starting his term as prime minister in 2003, Erdogan was himself the mayor of Istanbul between 1994 and 1998.

An astute 52-year-old businessman, Imamoglu is the city’s 32nd mayor and ran as a potential vice president to opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in this year’s presidential election.

Erdogan in 2019 quickly saw that he was up against a potential winner, said Berk Esen, an assistant professor of political science at Sabanci University in Istanbul.

Imamoglu was the most formidable politician the opposition camp has created in the last two decades, Esen told CNN, and being very charismatic, very young, very energetic, it was only a matter of time before Imamoglu defeated Erdogan.

Speaking on Monday, amid celebrations for the 570th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of the cities, Imamoglu was keen to remind Erdogan that even though he won the presidential election, he had yet to win in his beloved Istanbul.

The opposition defeated Erdogan by almost three points both Istanbul and Ankara in Sunday’s presidential runoff.

If you won the election and are still saying Istanbul’s name in your sleep, that’s okay. It’s good to dream. But it will not be a reality, Imamoglu said in a speech during the celebrations.

Neither you nor your fabricated court decisions will ever conquer Istanbul, he said, adding that the city has become an exemplary world capital where all faiths and cultures live together and is also the center of justice, tolerance and respect of the law.

Analysts said Erdogan has taken a number of steps since 2019 to sideline Imamoglu, knowing he would be the opposition’s strongest candidate.

A 2021 survey by MetroPoll showed that if there were a presidential election in which Erdoğan and Imamoglu would both compete, the latter would win close to 50% of the vote while Erdoğan would win close to 39%.

Last year, however, Imamoglu was sentenced to two years, seven months and 15 days in prison and banned from political activity for insulting Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK). Human Rights Watch had called condemning an unjustified and politically calculated attack on the Turkish political opposition ahead of the 2023 elections.

Imamoglu’s lawyers have said that they intend to appeal the decision, but if the decision is upheld, then the mayor will not be allowed to participate in public office.

Erdogan sidelined the only figure he could have defeated, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, Soner Cagaptay wrotesenior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Foreign Affairs magazine.

As a result, Imamoglu had no choice but to stay out [presidential] race to avoid triggering a general ban that would also remove him from the mayor’s office, Cagaptay said.

It was not the first time that Erdogan hit CHP members.

Last year, Turkey’s top court upheld a prison sentence against Canan Kaftancioglu, who heads the CHP’s Istanbul branch, on charges of insulting the president.

Esen says there is no doubt Erdogan wants to get rid of Imamoglu, but it remains unclear whether he will do so by trying to appeal to the electorate in 2024 municipal elections, or whether he will engage in an extralegal operation. to purge Imamoglu, to essentially replace him with a state appointee.

It remains to be seen how Erdogan will recapture Turkey’s commercial and electoral heartland. From reviving the earthquake-stricken country in the south to reviving a sagging economy, the leader still faces crucial challenges.

But the opposition is also in a bad state.

After this election loss, if the opposition parties do not put their house in order and continue to cooperate, but very rationally and very strategically, some opposition voters may become disillusioned and leave electoral politics altogether, Esen said.

Speaking at the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges on Tuesday, Erdogan criticized the opposition’s campaign promises, saying they were made only to get through the election.

You have more than 10 metropolitan mayors, what have they achieved in Istanbul? In Ankara? In Izmir? Go ahead and try what they have done, Erdogan said. I live in Istanbul and Ankara. I follow Izmir closely.

In addition to strategic importance, Istanbul also has personal value for Erdogan. He was born there and where he started his political career and continues to maintain a residence.

Erdogan’s mayoralty of Istanbul indeed catapulted him to national prominence. Essen said. The statement that whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey is no exaggeration.




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