For nearly 20 years, one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s most significant competitive edges was that the opposition had failed to come up with a viable alternative to his leadership. Erdoğan has lost this upper hand as the opposition is now able to introduce not one but two serious alternatives to challenge him.
A photo of İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu in which he was seen visiting the shrine of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II with his hands clasped behind his back prompted a new crisis in politics. The ruling party front claimed the image represented a desecration of the tomb of one of the leading figures of Turkish history, and the Interior Ministry started an investigation. For a while now, İmamoğlu has been polling ahead of Erdoğan for a potential presidential election. Faced with such a strong alternative for the first time in his political career, Erdoğan’s government is scrutinizing İmamoğlu’s every move.
İmamoğlu’s photo was taken a year ago, in May 2020. The image of İmamoğlu walking towards the shrine with his hands behind his back became a top agenda item nearly one year later when it was revealed that the photo was the subject of a criminal complaint and a ministry investigation launched at the request of İstanbul prosecutors. Municipal spokesperson Murat Ongun described the investigation as “devoid of reason.” Minister Süleyman Soylu announced that he was not going to authorize the investigation while claiming that the image did portray a crime.
Leader of a city of 15 million
At the helm the municipality of one of the world’s largest cities, İmamoğlu is considered to be one of Erdoğan’s most powerful potential rivals. The photo at the shrine is not the only investigation he is faced with as Interior Ministry inspectors continue to scrutinize and investigate the municipality’s every transaction.
İmamoğlu, who in the 2019 local elections ended Erdoğan’s ruling party’s nearly two decades of control of the country’s largest city, appears to have answered the long search for a viable alternative for political leadership. He has been polling ahead of Erdoğan in surveys conducted over the last year. The opposition even has a second alternative in Mansur Yavaş, the mayor of Ankara who dealt a similar blow to Erdoğan in the 2019 local elections, who is also ahead of Erdoğan in presidential polls.
To a question from the Eurasia Public Research Center (AKAM) about who would win in a presidential race between Yavaş and Erdoğan, 29.6 percent of participants said Erdoğan, while 44.1 percent said Yavaş.
In a similar faceoff between İmamoğlu and Erdoğan, only 28.4 percent said Erdoğan while 42.6 percent said they would expect a victory by İmamoğlu.
According to another polling company, Aksoy Araştırma, Yavaş was the politician who would garner the most votes against Erdoğan in a potential presidential election with 47.5 percent, while İmamoğlu came in at 45.3 percent.
Yavaş and İmamoğlu’s performance in local government after being elected mayors has been the most crucial factor in their rise as prospective candidates for president. The central government has taken several initiatives aimed at blocking their municipal projects. Removing mayors’ authorities is one of the methods employed towards that end. Last week, the authority to conduct disciplinary investigations into municipal employees was taken away from municipalities and handed over to the Interior Ministry.
Yavaş and İmamoğlu’s COVID-19 relief efforts were also frequently stymied by the government. The ministry banned municipal donation campaigns aimed at providing aid to those in financial straits due to the pandemic and launched investigations into the two mayors. Yet, these policies do not seem to have reversed their upward trajectory in the polls.
Who will be the nominee?
The Nation Alliance is an opposition bloc formed by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the İYİ (Good) Party and the Felicity Party (SP) that will possibly be joined by the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) and the Future Party (GP). CHP Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and İYİ leader Meral Akşener have agreed to nominate a joint candidate for president. Yet, the identity of the nominee remains unclear. In response to questions about mayors Yavaş and İmamoğlu, Kılıçdaroğlu says that they should first prove their success in municipal governance and that they could be thought of as potential candidates later.
While Yavaş garners more favorable polling numbers than İmamoğlu, the strategic position of the Kurdish electorate as the kingmaker favors the more Kurdish-friendly İmamoğlu than Yavaş, who comes from a nationalist background. Kurdish votes played a crucial role in İmamoğlu’s victory in İstanbul. The Kurdish political movement’s Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) supports the Nation Alliance externally and tilted the balance in İmamoğlu’s favor in 2019. İmamoğlu also has better personal relationships with HDP politicians, which earns him points among Kurdish voters.
What made Erdoğan unavoidable for nearly 20 years was his unique position in the political spectrum as a leader without a viable alternative. Thanks to Kılıçdaroğlu and Akşener’s rapport and cooperation that sometimes went beyond their respective parties’ interests, the opposition seems to have for the first time taken away from Erdoğan the argument that he is unrivaled. With not one but two candidates, no less.