Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu receives visitors in his wood-panelled office complete with golden trim, heavy velvet curtains and upholstered chairs with brocade covers. Behind his desk hangs the inevitable Turkish flag and, next to it, the equally inevitable photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. At first glance, the office of the mayor of Turkey’s largest city could belong to anyone.
Except for the picture hanging next to the flag. Most Turkish offices, to be sure, are decorated with images of Turkey’s state founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. But this one is unusual. It shows, as İmamoğlu explains, Atatürk speaking with a citizen, whose back is turned to the viewer. He likes this image so much, İmamoğlu once said, because Atatürk is listening to the man – which is how he sees himself, as a listener.
An Erdoğan Rival?
Before 2019, İmamoğlu was a political nobody in Turkey. But then, he became the mayor of Istanbul and its 16 million inhabitants as a representative of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Since then, his name is constantly mentioned as a possible challenger to Erdoğan in the 2023 election. Indeed, İmamoğlu could become a dangerous rival for the president, perhaps even before the scheduled election year. If the opposition has its way, new elections would take place soon, largely because of the government’s inability to control the country’s economic crisis.
This painting in İmamoğlu's office shows Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, speaking with a citizen. İmamoğlu says he also sees himself as a listener.Foto: Bradley Secker / DER SPIEGEL
Erdoğan was himself once the mayor of Istanbul. For 15 straight years, the metropolis was led by Erdoğan’s party. Then Ekrem İmamoğlu ran – and won – against Erdoğan’s candidate. The fact that hundreds of Istanbul administrative employees are under investigation for supposed terrorist connections could be a sign that the president is taking the mayor seriously as a possible opposition candidate.
İmamoğlu is a rather inconspicuous man. Not even his glasses have contours. Like Erdoğan’s family, he comes from the Black Sea coast, where the nature is wild, and the people are on the conservative side. After studying business administration, the now 51-year-old took over responsibility for his family’s construction company and entered the Republican People’s Party in 2008. Initially he focused on local politics.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Mayor, you became famous as the man who vanquished the "unbeatable Erdoğan” in 2019. How have you been doing since then? How is the city doing?
İmamoğlu: I am doing very well. I’m probably doing better than our country, which is carrying the burden of the problems caused by the current economic crisis. But the connection between the 16 million Istanbul residents and us is getting stronger by the day. Despite all the attacks and all the government’s senseless and excessive demonstrations of power towards us, the support of the society strengthens our morale. That likely means that we are doing a good job and listening to the people, that we are making progress together with the people.
DER SPIEGEL: You have said that the economy is Turkey’s biggest problem at the moment. How does this affect a city as large as Istanbul? How do you deal with the poverty here?
İmamoğlu: That is the biggest problem, even if the government tries to distract from it by creating artificial issues. This economic crisis is not new, it has been going on for about four-and-a-half years. Because of the pandemic, unemployment has also risen, especially among the youth – one in three in this age group is jobless. That is a heavy burden for families to bear. In the course of the pandemic, about 1.2 million households have turned to us and requested food or financial aid. The city provides milk to 150,000 children, 250,000 mothers of small children have requested the right to use public transit for free – more than four or five times as many as we had expected. And we produce more of our own bread – the "people’s bread.” When we were elected in 2019, we were at about 700,000 loaves. Now, 1.5 million loaves are baked daily.
DER SPIEGEL: The Istanbul city administration has secured construction loans from outside the country. How do you plan to pay back the money? It is becoming more difficult by the day, given the lira’s runaway inflation. Pro-government media talk of Istanbul city hall’s "debt swamp.”
İmamoğlu: Our city administration has 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion) in foreign debt. We have weeded out some waste and transparently presented the city budget to the residents of Istanbul, after they had no insight into the municipal budget for years. Just as we repaid our debts in 2021, we will do so in 2022 and 2023. Turkey has repeatedly had to struggle with a weak currency, but as an administration, we don’t have an economic problem. We are better off than the government.
Up until two years ago, İmamoğlu was the district mayor of Beylikdüzü, a middle-class district on the European side of the Marmara Sea. Three years ago, the oppositional CHP nominated him as a surprise candidate in the mayoral race. İmamoğlu, a rather devout person in a secular party, ran against a close party ally of the president. He didn’t really stand a chance.
But the surprise candidate did, indeed, surprise. İmamoğlu spoke of democracy, of equality, announced a fight against waste. He ignored insults and attacks and repeated his election slogan like a mantra: "Everything will be alright!” On the morning after the election, the election commission announced Ekrem İmamoğlu’s victory. Under pressure from the AKP, the election was annulled and repeated several months later. In the do-over, İmamoğlu received even more votes.
On the stump: Ekrem İmamoğlu speaking to supporters in June 2019. He went on to win the election - twice, after the first was annulled.Foto: Cavit Ozgul / AP
When Erdoğan rose to power 20 years ago, he and his AKP party promised prosperity. The republic, which was on the verge of financial ruin at the time, experienced a boom under AKP leadership, and many people took out loans to buy cars or houses. Under Erdoğan, it became normal to take on debt. The message was: As long as we are in charge, everyone will be prosperous.
Troubling Economic Times
Now, though, the country is once again in trouble. The lira has plunged in value and many people are having a hard time even paying for groceries. According to a survey by the renowned Metropoll Institute, 76 percent of those polled in January disapproved of Turkey’s economy policy. In other words: Erdoğan is no longer fulfilling his central promise.
He lives in a palace. İmamoğlu, on the other hand, presents himself as a modest civil servant. According to another survey, also by Metropoll, he would win against Erdoğan if he ran. But İmamoğlu is also struggling with problems of his own, including the question of how the city should deal with the growing number of refugees from Syria and other countries.
DER SPIEGEL: Istanbul is a city of refugees, but recently the mood throughout the country has taken a more anti-migrant turn.
İmamoğlu: The migration wave became so large in part because so many rich countries simply watched. The West hasn’t taken enough responsibility. But in Turkey, there is a lack of transparency when it comes to the refugee issue. The government didn’t share any data with us, despite all our requests for information and collaboration. Our country needs to ensure the safety of the refugees, the local authorities need to support that. My hope is that the international community will work to ensure that these people can once again live in their own countries.
DER SPIEGEL: You mean, the refugees should return to their countries of origin?
İmamoğlu: Of course, that’s how it should be, but I am realistic enough to see that that isn’t possible for now. I’m talking about a plan for the future. Nobody likes to live far from their homeland because they are forced to do so.
Refugees have a strong presence in Istanbul’s cityscape. In the center, one frequently sees begging mothers, children who are selling handkerchiefs or water. There are restaurants, hairdressers and grocery stores run by refugees.
In nationwide polls, two-thirds say that the country’s borders should be closed to refugees. Almost the same number believe there are so many refugees in the country because the government has pursued a misguided foreign policy. It was Erdoğan’s AKP that initially implemented an open-door approach.
Istanbul has become a city of immigrants, with many of them performing strenuous manual labor to survive, such as collecting trash.Foto: BULENT KILIC / AFP
Ekrem İmamoğlu’s party, the CHP, is the largest opposition party and has always been critical of accepting refugees. Many hardliners in the party have sought to turn the refugee issue into a central focus. İmamoğlu is among the moderate voices who say that Turkey has a duty to take care of the wartime refugees – but also has the right to talk about their return.
DER SPIEGEL: There is a constant struggle between you and the central government in Ankara. How would things be different if you were a member of the AKP?
İmamoğlu: Before I became the mayor of Istanbul, I ran a city district for five years that never received any benefits from the city government, which was in the hands of the AKP at the time. Now, I make an effort to ensure that all 39 Istanbul city districts receive the same amount of allocations from the central government – whether they are run by my party, the AKP or another party. At the same time, I see that the government in Ankara is impeding construction plans in Istanbul. Our loan applications are delayed, ministries are refusing to grant approval. For two-and-a-half years, we have not received a single lira in credit from the public banks. The eagerness of the AKP government to take revenge on us is harming citizens.
DER SPIEGEL: There have been attempts to take legal action against you, including for insults. Most recently, accusations have been made that people working in your administration have connections to terrorism. What is that about?
İmamoğlu: The government is worried that, after Istanbul, it will also lose Turkey. That’s where this comes from. We have no problem with being inspected, as is the case now because of the terrorism claims. We trust the inspectors. Ultimately, though, they will not be the ones to make the decisions. Politically, all these attacks play into our hands. Maybe it’s also because of the government in Ankara that the citizens support us.
DER SPIEGEL: Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş has been in prison for terrorism charges since 2016, even though the Turkish Constitutional Court has classified his detention as illegal. Are you afraid that the same could one day happen to you?
İmamoğlu: When it comes to terrorism accusations, members of the government may have to be held accountable. But I have nothing to hide – certainly nothing related to terror.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is facing a struggling economy and falling support.Foto: Antonio Masiello / Getty Images
DER SPIEGEL: Two prominent journalists recently asked on a talk show: Why does Erdoğan fear İmamoğlu so much? What would be your answer?
İmamoğlu: He looks at me though I stole, with Istanbul, his own property. I don’t know if it’s fury. Sometimes I think it’s admiration. Istanbul has wasted time under the AKP. I think he admires me now when he sees the service I am doing for this city.
İmamoğlu shrugs off any attempt to ask if he is running in next year’s presidential election. He says it’s not on his agenda. But İmamoğlu’s political plans don’t seem to be purely focused on the short term. A few hours after the annulment of his election was announced, he appeared before his party supporters, rolled up his sleeves and said: "Our path is long.”
Turkish society’s needs have not been this extensive in a long time. At the same time, trust in its head of state has rarely been so low. It could be Ekrem İmamoğlu’s opportunity.