Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu waves to the crowd in front of Istanbul Municipality building after Turkish courts verdict on Dec. 14, 2022, in Istanbul, Türkiye. (Getty Images Photo)

Can Imamoglu write his own ‘story’?

The organizers of the gatherings in Istanbul's Saraçhane tapped into President Erdoğan’s past experiences, including his 1998 ban from politics and subsequent struggle, to write 'the Imamoğlu story,' but the real question is: Can Imamoğlu write his own story?

In my analysis of a Turkish court’s verdict on Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, I had noted that each politician writes their story under different circumstances. A quick glance at the ongoing debate regarding “political engineering” and “conspiracy theories” suffices to conclude that Imamoğlu will have a very difficult time writing that story. It is certainly interesting that most of those discussions take place among the opposition. The organizers of last week’s gatherings in Saraçhane, Istanbul hoped to portray Imamoğlu as an aggrieved figure in an attempt to give him the momentum needed to clinch the opposition bloc’s endorsement as their joint presidential candidate. In other words, they tapped into President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s past experiences, including his 1998 ban from politics and subsequent struggle, to write “the Imamoğlu story.”

Ironically, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) appears to stop that story from being written. Chairperson Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu promptly said that “the verdict shall have no impact on the selection process” and added that Imamoğlu would continue serving as Istanbul’s mayor. In a statement to the press on Monday, the main opposition leader recalled learning about Imamoğlu’s call (for a rally in Istanbul) on social media before issuing a clear warning to Istanbul’s mayor and the Good Party (IP) Chairperson Meral Akşener: “No party should meddle in the internal affairs of another.” Obviously, Kılıçdaroğlu did not forget to stress that he would certainly run for president “if the six leaders get together and agree” that he should contest next year’s election.

The CHP spokesperson, Faik Öztrak, responded much more clearly to the most recent developments by alleging that the court verdict was “a political engineering attempt” targeting the main opposition party.

The great joy, which Akşener and Imamoğlu expressed, stands in stark contrast with the statements by Kılıçdaroğlu and Öztrak.

Needless to say, the CHP leadership did not react so harshly just because Akşener managed to steal the spotlight from Kılıçdaroğlu – which could be reasonable, since the main opposition party and the Good Party compete for secularist voters. The real issue is that CHP seems to think of the court verdict as spoiling a done deal.

Of course, another major issue is Akşener trying to dictate Imamoğlu’s candidacy on the main opposition party and the “table for six” – assuming that there is another done deal. In other words, CHP’s reactions indicate that they did not view Imamoğlu as a viable candidate (even before the court ruling) and their position has not changed. It is certainly curious that the opposition broke the Istanbul mayor’s “momentum” so quickly that hardly anyone talks about the verdict itself anymore.

Imamoğlu’s momentum

At this point, the following questions need answering: Who exactly broke Imamoğlu’s momentum? Was it Meral Akşener, who embraced him excessively as “the alliance’s candidate” and imposed him on the CHP? Was it Imamoğlu, who overshadowed Kılıçdaroğlu by moving too close to Akşener and adopting a position above political parties? Was it the CHP or Kılıçdaroğlu for refusing to nominate Imamoğlu? Or are they all responsible for having managed this process very poorly?

As of today, Meral Akşener’s latest attempt to impose a candidate on the opposition bloc appears to have backfired. At the same time, the “table for six” is compelled to pick a joint presidential candidate sooner than planned. Despite all that, the CHP insists on seeking an endorsement for Kılıçdaroğlu.

It goes without saying that the opposition will use the court ruling as “political capital.” Since the “Saraçhane momentum” broke quite rapidly, however, a critical question remains unanswered: Into whose story will the opposition incorporate the idea of “grievance”? Will it be Imamoğlu, Kılıçdaroğlu or another candidate?

Kılıçdaroğlu and Imamoğlu correspond to two opposing kinds of candidate. Having formed the opposition bloc, the former prioritizes “the system over the candidate” to position himself as a “coordinator-president” – all opposition leaders, except Akşener, are receptive to that message. Istanbul’s mayor, in turn, is considered a potential presidential candidate so ambitious that he rubs CHP and the opposition bloc the wrong way.

It seems unlikely that Imamoğlu will be able to write his story within the opposition camp where there are so many ambitious political players.

[Daily Sabah, December 21 2022]

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