As the Republic of Turkey’s 100 years anniversary approaches, the struggle on the soul of Turkey intensifies with the rising competition in politics mainly between two blocs: the governing Islamist/conservative AK Parti (Justice and Development Party) and its undisputed charismatic leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the main opposition party -pro-secular and social democratic- CHP (Republican People’s Party) and its Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu. Although he is a relatively new figure in Turkish politics, with his recent Greece visit, İmamoğlu has become an important international political actor recently. It should be also noted that İmamoğlu is the Mayor of İstanbul, the biggest city and the economic capital of Turkey with 16-17 million population and it is not strange for him to attract attention especially remembering the fact that President Erdoğan was also the Mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998) before becoming Prime Minister in 2003. In this piece, I am going to summarize and analyze the life story and the political rise of Ekrem İmamoğlu and I will try to analyze his worldview.
İmamoğlu with the Athenian Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis during his visit to Greece
Life Story of Ekrem İmamoğlu
Born in a small village of Akçaabat, Trabzon in Karadeniz (Black Sea) region in 1970, Ekrem İmamoğlu comes from a modest Muslim Anatolian family. During his childhood, İmamoğlu was raised in Cevizli and Yıldızlı villages, typical small Black Sea villages with pious Muslim population dealing with agriculture and stockbreeding as economic activities. İmamoğlu attended to Quran courses at the age of 4 and learned to read Quran in Arabic. İmamoğlu’s father Hasan İmamoğlu was a tradesman and his mother Hava İmamoğlu was a farmer. Ekrem İmamoğlu’s father Hasan İmamoğlu was one of the founders of center-right Motherland Party’s (ANAP) Trabzon branch in the early 1980s following the September 12, 1980 military coup. The 1980s was the peak of ANAP’s and its leader and former Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal’s power and İmamoğlu family was close to the conservative ANAP tradition. Young İmamoğlu was graduated from the Trabzon High School and played football (soccer) and handball during his childhood. Since the city of Trabzon is famous for its football club Trabzonspor which was very successful and popular especially in the 1970s and the 1980s, as a child from Trabzon, İmamoğlu became a Trabzonspor fan. İmamoğlu took his chance for the university examination and began to study in North Cyprus at Girne American University (GAU) Management department. But when his family moved to Istanbul, İmamoğlu continued his education in Istanbul University’s Management department and was graduated from here in 1994 with a BA degree in Management (English). Later he also earned MA degree in Human Resources and Management from the same university. After the university, İmamoğlu engaged in construction business. Since many of the constructors in Istanbul comes from Trabzon or other Black Sea villages and his father already had business experience, he became successful in the construction industry and began to earn more money. In 1995, he married with Dilek İmamoğlu. İmamoğlu family has three children; two boys and a girl.
Dilek İmamoğlu and Ekrem İmamoğlu
Although coming from a conservative center-right family, İmamoğlu learned the basic principles of social democracy when he was a university student in North Cyprus. He later joined CHP in 2008 during the presidency of Deniz Baykal. He was elected the head of the party’s youth branch in 2009. He was also elected by the party administration the district president of Beylikdüzü in the same year. His quick political rise within the CHP was materialized on the basis of his positive energy, charismatic leadership, and hardworking personality. Young İmamoğlu reorganized the party branch in Beylikdüzü and created a young and energetic team. Before the 2014 local elections, party’s new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu chose İmamoğlu as the municipal candidate and with a successful electoral campaign, İmamoğlu was elected the new Mayor of Beylikdüzü with 50.44 % of the total votes. He made Beylikdüzü the fastest growing district of Istanbul and created a good image with his tolerant personality and modern family. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu also liked İmamoğlu’s style and he chose İmamoğlu for the Istanbul municipal race in 2019 although he was almost unknown at that time by the media and most of people outside Beylikdüzü and CHP. İmamoğlu’s competitor was powerful Binali Yıldırım, the former (and the last) Prime Minister and former Minister of Transportation. However, young İmamoğlu and his team organized a very good campaign and established strong links with the untraditional CHP voters such as pious people and Kurds. Thanks to these efforts, in a very surprising way, İmamoğlu won the municipal election with 16,000 votes. However, the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) later annulled the election. This made İmamoğlu the focal point of Turkish politics and in the second election a few months later, he won this time with 800,000 votes. Since 2019, he has been serving as the Mayor of Istanbul and doing good projects despite of black propaganda and prejudices. With his France visit in 2019, he began to show his skills in diplomacy as well and tried to attract European investors and debtors to Istanbul. He later visited London, participated to a conference at the Chatham House, and met with the London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Lastly, this week he visited Greece and performed a successful diplomatic effort during his meetings with Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. He is often pointed out as a strong potential candidate for the opposition in the 2023 Turkish presidential election due to his high popularity and support among the youth.
Ekrem İmamoğlu and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Analyzing İmamoğlu’s Political Style
Ekrem İmamoğlu is a pro-European social democrat. But since he comes from a center-right family, İmamoğlu is also familiar with the pious right-wing voters and their cultural world. He is a very modern individual but has a modest personality and he does not make any discrimination against any social groups. He has considerable support among Kurds and Alevis; two important different ethnic/sectarian groups in Turkey. He has also a strong support coming from people who live in Karadeniz (Black Sea) region and Karadeniz immigrants in Istanbul. “Hemşehri” (countryman) networks are very influential in Turkish politics and İmamoğlu represents the Black Sea tradition -similar to President Erdoğan whose family migrated to Istanbul from Rize- within this perspective. He also comes from the construction industry, which is the vanguard economic sector in Turkey in recent years. Since Turkish cities and most importantly Istanbul need urban transformation/gentrification, İmamoğlu’s experience in construction business could help him as a new political leader. Another support to İmamoğlu comes from Turkish Cypriots from the North Cyprus (or the KKTC as a de facto state that is recognized only by Turkey) since he spent a few years there and established good friendships among Turkish Cypriot community. The leader of İYİ Parti (Good Party), which is in alliance with the CHP under the banner of “Millet İttifakı” (People’s Alliance), Meral Akşener once described him as the Mehmed the Conqueror due to his surprising victory in Istanbul in 2019. There is no doubt that he is the rising star of Turkish politics since 2019. His peace messages in Greece show the worldview of İmamoğlu, which could be shortly described as European type modern social democracy. Thus, we can confidently say that İmamoğlu is in favour of Turkey’s full accession to European Union (EU). He also has no prejudices or hostilities against any state; he did not make any criticism towards the United States, Russia, China, or any other state until now. But his style makes me conclude that he is more pro-European compared to other political leaders in Turkey.
İmamoğlu’s statements after the annulled election in March 2019
Repeated election made İmamoğlu a political star
İmamoğlu’s success in politics is based on his calm but stubborn personality. When his first victory was unjustly annulled by the YSK, İmamoğlu never gave up. He continued to check all ballots and results and made press declarations until the morning. Since he thought he was right, İmamoğlu never thought of retreating. In the end, Istanbul voters in June made him the new political star of Turkey. Renewing the election was probably President Erdoğan’s biggest mistake in his whole political career because he created a very strong and popular competitor against himself. According to the actual polls organized by İstanbul Ekonomi, in a potential presidential second round election, İmamoğlu would defeat Erdoğan by 51.4 % against 39.9. This shows the strength of İmamoğlu. In addition, İmamoğlu’s style is very calm; in order to make him angry, the voters of other parties or pro-government journalists often ask him tricky questions. But İmamoğlu each time keeps himself calm and never gets angry. He responds to all questions and reactions in a civilized and gentil way. However, İmamoğlu’s views on Turkey’s most important problems such as the Kurdish Question or the Cyprus Problem are still unknown. Thus, in case he becomes a presidential candidate, İmamoğlu has to prepare a detailed programme for such issues in addition to Turkey’s economic problems. But one thing is sure: İmamoğlu has a great potential for becoming a strong and charismatic leader. So far there are only two books written for studying the phenomenon of İmamoğlu. However, these books are more of a public relations effort rather than scientific analyses.
Finally, I think Ekrem İmamoğlu will be the opposition bloc’s joint candidate in the 2023 Turkish presidential election. That is why, we need to research and understand İmamoğlu’s views better and İmamoğlu has to set up an academic team to govern Turkey. Because although ruling Istanbul is almost equally difficult as ruling Turkey, for sure, to deal with national politics instead of local politics, one has to develop himself in Political Science and International Relations as well.
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ
 To read some news related to this visit, see;
 Ekrem İmamoğlu’s biography can be read from these sites:
 For some examples;
 – https://www.idefix.com/ekitap/ekrem-mamoglu-nu-tanyalm