Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to wrest control of Istanbul from Turkish opposition


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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party will seek to wrest back control of Turkey’s biggest city Istanbul from mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu on Sunday in a high-stakes election for the strongman leader and his embattled opponents.

Voting was under way in mayoral and local assembly races across Turkey, with results expected late in the evening.

No local election has as much national or international resonance as the one in Istanbul, where Erdoğan’s mayoral candidate Murat Kurum is seeking to unseat İmamoğlu, the opposition’s pre-eminent leader and the most credible rival to the president.

Sunday’s municipal elections come after Erdoğan won last May’s presidential contest in a crushing defeat for Turkey’s opposition. Erdoğan, who has ruled Turkey for more than two decades, has led a vigorous bid for his party to seize control of Istanbul, home to almost 16mn people and one of the opposition’s few bastions of power.

“No local election has ever been this important,” said Özer Sencar, a pollster and political analyst at Ankara-based research group Metropoll.

The election comes at a time when Turkey is in the throes of a long-running and painful inflation crisis. Concerns are also growing both among international observers and within many parts of Turkish society over Erdoğan’s slide towards autocracy.

Whoever wins control of Istanbul will inherit a powerhouse that, with its subsidiary corporations, has an annual budget of about TL516bn ($16bn) and around 40,000 employees, giving its mayor a powerful platform for which to directly access voters.

İmamoğlu, 53, won control of Istanbul from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) in 2019 after a highly charged election in which the president’s candidate lost both in the initial polls and a repeat round of voting that followed.

In the intervening years, İmamoğlu, a charismatic campaigner, has become a leading force in the Republican People’s party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition group, and is widely seen as a future presidential candidate.

“İmamoğlu is a very important figure. He’s not just the mayor of Istanbul but the only person willing to challenge the government. Everyone else is afraid to speak up,” said Ahmet Dil, a 58-year-old Istanbul resident.

Ekrem İmamoğlu
Ekrem İmamoğlu won control of Istanbul from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) in 2019 after a highly charged election © Tolga Uluturk/ZUMA Press Wire/dp

Erdoğan, who climbed to the national spotlight as Istanbul mayor in 1994, has campaigned aggressively for Kurum, 47, during the 2024 election, holding rallies across the city including on Saturday. Turkey’s state-aligned media has also covered every twist and turn of Kurum’s campaign, while Erdoğan sent top ministers to lobby for his candidate in Istanbul.

The outcome of the election will probably be determined not just by the turnout of AKP and CHP voters, but also by those planning to vote for smaller political parties. The pro-Kurdish DEM party, Islamist New Welfare party and nationalist İYİ Parti are all running their own mayoral candidates in major cities, and analysts expect some of those groups’ supporters to ultimately back the AKP or CHP candidate.

Erdoğan, who rose to national power at the turn of the millennium with an Islamist-leaning platform, remains one of Turkey’s most popular politicians and its most important leader since founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He has zigzagged across the country in recent months, seeking to use his star power to bolster support for AKP candidates.

“Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is doing what is necessary in the interests of Turkey,” said Aziz Bulut, a 55-year-old resident of the south-eastern city of Şanlıurfa, citing the president’s “conservative” values and patriotism. “Until the end, until he dies, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”



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