‘People don’t believe they can win’: apathy abounds ahead of Istanbul’s mayoral election

<span>The Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) addresses supporters.</span><span>Photograph: Yasin Akgül/AFP/Getty Images</span>
The Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) addresses supporters.Photograph: Yasin Akgül/AFP/Getty Images

On the banks of Istanbul’s Golden Horn, the Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoğlu, rallied a crowd for his re-election campaign as banners advertising his opponent flapped in the breeze on a nearby bridge.

“We brought prosperity to Istanbul,” he proclaimed, drawing cautious applause.

Imamoğlu’s 2019 victory was a landmark moment for Turkey’s opposition, marking him as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political enemy and giving fresh hope for those seeking to challenge his rule.

Erdoğan, who held the post of Istanbul mayor decades earlier, had disputed the initial vote and demanded a re-run – resulting in a bigger win for Imamoğlu second time around. But this was followed by a turbulent first term in office as he faced political and legal challenges from his opponents.

The Turkish president now aims to bring the country’s largest city back under his party’s control, after fending off the most concerted challenge to his rule in decades during national elections last year when his coalition also unexpectedly won a parliamentary majority.

Hüsniyeh Kurt was moved to tears as she watched Imamoğlu speak, pointing to him as a symbol of hope who had managed to make a few small changes to municipal kindergartens and transport lines. But, she conceded as she clutched a Turkish flag, opposition voters are struggling to muster the same enthusiasm as they did five years ago.

“People don’t believe they can win elections,” she said. “The government will do whatever is necessary, all the tricks, to ensure the opposition doesn’t win.”

Further up the Golden Horn, Metin Timur Tüfekçiler sat on the bank to begin his morning’s fishing. Behind him was a new tramline inaugurated by Imamoğlu, and across the waters of the Bosphorus he had a clear view of one of the Istanbul mayor’s flagship projects, a former shipyard due to become a sleek mall complex.

Despite this, Tüfekçiler was unconvinced that Imamoğlu’s rule had changed much for Istanbul’s 16 million residents. “I don’t like Imamoğlu, but there’s no alternative,” he said. He was voting to re-elect the mayor as he felt his opponent, the AKP’s Murat Kurum, had even less to offer, he explained.

“Imamoğlu couldn’t do anything to fix the issues in this city the last five years- this is the system,” he said. “Whoever gets power can’t fix the problems in Istanbul. But he didn’t come up with any new solutions.”

While Imamoğlu has become the face of Turkey’s beleaguered opposition, the sense of enthusiasm and hope for change that propelled him into office has dissipated, particularly after a six-party anti-Erdoğan coalition that united to oppose the president was defeated in elections last year and the mood among his voter base is grim. Unlike in 2019, the Istanbul mayor is running without the backing of the nationalist IYI (Good) party, leaving him to campaign alone.

Polling released last month shows how much of a challenge it will be for him to clinch victory, giving him a slim lead of less than three percentage points over Kurum, with 20% of voters undecided.

“It will certainly be a tight race ... A sense of apathy has set in among the opposition supporters after the defeat in the general elections,” said Berkay Mandıracı of International Crisis Group. “The fragmentation of the opposition has fuelled perceptions that change is ever less likely.”

Only the sense that Erdoğan’s determination to retake Istanbul makes him Imamoğlu’s true opponent, rather than Kurum, is drawing some voters to the polls. The Istanbul mayor, however, appears reluctant to take the bait, and declines to name either, referring to both simply as “our rivals” while on the campaign trail.

Inside his corner shop in Balat, a district that voted for the AKP candidate in 2019, Maşallah Ilçin quickly shot back with “of course not Erdoğan”, when asked how he planned to vote in the local elections.

Like many voters, Turkey’s high inflation and economic crisis have fuelled Ilçin’s desire for change, even if voting in a local election presents a slim opportunity to limit the central government’s power or shift economic policy. “Erdoğan stands with the wealthy. You can smell hunger on the breath of the poor,” he said.

Istanbul is Turkey’s economic capital, representing a third of its GDP, but its residents also feel the strain of the country’s financial crisis more acutely than those in the provinces. Sat outside his antique shop in Balat, a furious Recep Salman said he’d voted for the AKP before, but that he and others in his household planned to abstain in protest.

“I’m angry at all of it,” he said. “I’m a pensioner – but my pension only brings in 10,500 lira (£260) a month, while my rent is 12,000 lira (£296). Imamoğlu’s people showed up here, but I told them that he’s a showman, he’s just performing.”

The Istanbul mayor spent much of his first term tussling with opponents in local government and in Ankara, unable to pass major reforms in Istanbul. He has also had to fend off legal challenges, including jail time and a ban from politics handed down by a Turkish court in late 2022 after he was accused of insulting election officials, which he continues to appeal.

Others in Balat said they were wavering in their support. “He does things, but how much can he really do – how much will they allow him to do?” said Ziya, who asked his surname be withheld.

He fingered prayer beads outside his clothing shop, contemplating whether it might be better to vote for the AKP so that their district representative and the mayor wouldn’t be at odds with each other, as well as the central government. This, he hoped, might leave them free to enact policies rather than fight among themselves.

Tüfekçiler, a photography teacher, said he was unexpectedly fired from his previous job at a municipal office shortly after Imamoğlu came to power, in defiance of the mayor’s campaign promises.

“We wanted someone new who can change things. But to change things in this city you need a change in government, because as we’ve seen, the central government creates obstacles for the mayor and will continue to do so,” he said. “Imamoğlu didn’t keep his promises.”