ANKARA: The proliferation of the international engagements for Istanbul mayor and opposition challenger Ekrem Imamoglu raises the question: What can this international interest toward Imamoglu be attributed to?
Imamoglu recently met German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble during his trip to Berlin for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He also received the Kybele Award from the Turkish-German Friendship Federation.
In an interview Imamoglu cautioned against political polarization: “Walls do not always have to be physical,” he said. “They are not necessarily made out of concrete and iron bars. Sometimes, two people can stand side by side while an insurmountable wall exists between them.”
However, it was not Imamoglu’s first entry into the international sphere.
In August, Gergely Karácsony, the Hungarian opposition candidate for Budapest mayor, visited the newly elected Imamoglu in his office in Istanbul, where he praised Imamoglu “as a source of hope for Budapest.” The Green opposition leader went on to win the Budapest mayoral election in October in a major blow to Victor Orbán’s nationalist government.
Imamoglu visited Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, in Paris on Oct. 2. The French mayor greeted his Turkish counterpart in Turkish with the words “Hoşgeldiniz Sayın Başkan” (Welcome, Mr. Mayor).
During the visit, Istanbul mayor said, “The success we have attained over the last local election is not only limited to Turkey, but has had echoes in other parts of the world. I feel it and I know it. I hope that I will be supported by fellow mayors who view the world in the same way as I do.” He also gave a speech in the European Parliament on Oct 30.
Imamoglu won a significant victory on June 23 in the rerun of Istanbul’s mayoral election, with a lead of nearly 800,000 votes.
Ates Ilyas Bassoy, a political communication expert, devised Imamoglu’s strategy for the local elections based on a comprehensive field study throughout the country.
In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Bassoy said: “The brand value of Istanbul is even higher than that of Turkey.” He added: “Imamoglu is paying visits to foreign countries not for the politics, but for the much-needed international prestige of this city.”
Bassoy thinks that Istanbul needs a synergy to enrich the city by encouraging investments in value-added sectors such as design, fashion and advanced engineering.
According to Emre Erdogan, professor of political science in Istanbul Bilgi University, Imamoglu is becoming a popular political figure in the European capitals, which is not surprising.
“For many, he is a hero fighting against the rising wave of populist politics based on exclusion, xenophobia and discrimination. As he positioned himself as a leader appealing to all constituencies and created a narrative of electoral victory in the ballots, he gave hope to other candidates competing against the hegemony of the populist leaders,” he said.
“His narrative has been put as an example of a good strategy and discourse to beat the domination of the strong leaders,” Erdogan said, adding that “for European leaders such as Merkel or Macron who are fed up with the hard negotiation style of Erdogan, Imamoglu is perceived as a potential president to replace him, and will provide avenues for more softened way of negotiations.”
Emre Erdogan says Istanbul’s new mayor presents himself as a good alternative for returning Turkey to the Western democratic, pluralistic and cosmopolitan way.
However, these foreign contacts stirred harsh criticism from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu recently said that “Imamoglu would pay the price for complaining about Turkey at the European Parliament”.
But for Professor Erdogan the constituency of Imamoglu welcomes all these activities.
“For the majority of his constituency, “being a Westerner” is an ultimate value as the crystallization of the modernization desires of the founding fathers of the Republic. Though there is a strong nationalist tune within the coalition, a powerful leader having a good reputation in the eyes of the West is not an unfamiliar picture for them,” he said.
From that perspective, the frequent foreign visits of Turkey’s “rising star” consolidates his support for the upcoming elections, Professor Erdogan noted.
Imamoglu’s family members are also under the spotlight. Dilek Imamoglu, the mayor’s wife, was recently put on the cover of the French magazine Madame Figaro and was introduced with remarkable words: ‘First Lady of Istanbul.’