Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu recharted the course of his “journey of change” to seeking reelection. In other words, he lacked the courage to run for chairperson of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) – just as he could not run for president earlier this year.
Whereas Imamoğlu’s decision de-escalated tensions around the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairperson Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and the main opposition party, pro-opposition columnists curiously interpreted that move as a challenge to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It goes without saying that any politician would enjoy being compared to the Turkish leader, who has been in charge for 21 years and just secured another five years in office. By the same token, opposition leaders tend to criticize Erdoğan as part of their job, enjoying (openly or secretly) whenever he talks about them in his public appearances.
I believe that ignoring the above fact to draw parallels between President Erdoğan and Imamoğlu is detached from political realities and amounts to nothing but a poor PR stunt. Furthermore, I posit that such a discourse would ultimately frustrate CHP supporters themselves.
It is important to note that Erdoğan’s path from Istanbul’s mayor to the president was a unique story. One cannot compare the Turkish leader’s identity, personality, brand of politics, struggles and tenure to any active politician. Simply put, Erdoğan combined his strong performance as mayor with the country’s search for a political leader who could end the political and economic crises of the 1990s.
Most importantly, Erdoğan did not face another Erdoğan at any point in his career. The opposition learned once again in May 2023 what exactly that means.
CHP’s quest for strong leader
Over the last two decades, a single quest has been etched deep into the CHP’s political culture: the search for a strong leader who can challenge President Erdoğan. Just like Deniz Baykal, Kılıçdaroğlu, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu and Muharrem Ince, Imamoğlu was promptly identified as the long-awaited leader upon winning the mayoral race in Istanbul.
Kılıçdaroğlu and Imamoğlu jointly undermined that attempt to fill the main opposition party’s political and psychological void with Istanbul’s mayor. Despite Good Party (IP) Chairperson Meral Akşener’s efforts, the CHP chairperson refused to endorse Imamoğlu and instead ran for president himself.
Compelled to accept the vice presidential nomination, Imamoğlu could not run for CHP chair either. Keeping in mind his excessive interest in national politics and poor track record as mayor, the idea that Imamoğlu’s actual opponent would be Erdoğan amount to little more than just another slogan.
If anything, it would make sense to compare Imamoğlu with Kılıçdaroğlu – whom he failed to overthrow. Here’s why: pro-opposition columnists have been criticizing Kılıçdaroğlu for losing the 2023 election despite coming really close to winning. Likewise, they might criticize Imamoğlu for failing to replace a weakened Kılıçdaroğlu as chairperson. Delaying the quest for “change” was a tactical move by Kılıçdaroğlu. At the end of the day, Imamoğlu had no response to that maneuver.
Imamoğlu’s diminishing popularity
Unable to make his breakthrough as a politician, Imamoğlu remains notably less popular than in 2019. Even CHP supporters no longer believe that he is their movement’s “long-awaited” leader. Intraparty battles and secret Zoom meetings have accompanied the Istanbul mayor’s frequent vacations, buses breaking down and construction projects that cannot seem to be completed.
Obviously, none of those things rules out another term for Imamoğlu because he does not rely on providing certain services to Istanbulites in the first place. Instead, he intends to secure another five years by fueling ideological polarization and taking advantage of the alliance system.
The governing alliance must prepare for the opposition’s potential endorsement of a single mayoral candidate in each metropolitan area despite their current level of fragmentation.
The bottom line is that drawing parallels between President Erdoğan and Imamoğlu would offer nothing but bitter disappointment to the main opposition party. At the end of the day, they dream of an Erdoğan but they are stuck with the reality that is Kılıçdaroğlu.