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Have Turkey’s Elections Produced a Challenger to Erdogan?

The Rise of Ekrem Imamoglu

Imamoglu greets supporters in Istanbul, April 2019 Umit Bektas / REUTERS

On the eve of Istanbul’s mayoral election, opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu was drawing small crowds of the party faithful to low-key campaign rallies. Two days after his stunning upset victory, thousands of supporters thronged the presumptive winner as he paid his respects at the mausoleum of the founder of modern secular Turkey.

Visiting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s tomb is a tradition for election winners in Turkey. For Imamoglu, it was also an act of defiance. A bitter dispute has broken out between his supporters and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) over his narrow vote lead. The 48-year-old challenger is energizing the once moribund Republican People’s Party (CHP). Banished from power for four decades, the CHP is now tantalizingly close to controlling Turkey’s biggest cities.

Imamoglu and his rival, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, have both declared themselves Istanbul’s mayor-elect. Less than 0.2 percent of the more than eight million votes cast separates them. A recount has entered its second week, and anxiety is mounting within the opposition over whether the AKP will relinquish its quarter-century hold on Istanbul should the final tally confirm Imamoglu’s victory.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has waded into the fight. He sees evidence of “organized crimes” marring the vote and has said that he backs his party’s demand that the election board cancel the Istanbul results outright. A newspaper close to the ruling party denounced a “ballot box coup d’état”; another saw the machinations of international conspirators behind Imamoglu’s sudden ascent. And a prosecutor in the northern town of Samsun is weighing a criminal complaint against Imamoglu over the visit to Ataturk’s mausoleum.

The backlash is a case of sour grapes, Imamoglu says. The AKP is “looking for a remedy after their loss at the ballot box, because they’re not accustomed to losing,” he told me. “After [the AKP] ran the city for 25 years, people developed a mindset that it would never change. This shows that

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