Can Europe Make It?

Why Istanbul’s rerun is a battle for the soul of Turkey

Six summers ago, Erdogan’s social engineering efforts triggered their first major backlash in Istanbul. And this March, spring came back to Istanbul.

Aykan Erdemir Merve Tahiroglu
14 June 2019, 8.05pm
Dome of the Istanbul Ashkenazi Synagogue, 2008.
Wikicommons/Alaexis. Some rights reserved.

Turkey is heading toward the most unusual election in its modern history. After his party lost the Istanbul mayoralty to an opposition candidate this spring, Turkey’s authoritarian president has ordered a re-run of the city’s election with no credible legal justification. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s blatant disregard for the popular will has cast the upcoming vote on June 23 as a battle for democracy – rallying millions throughout Turkey behind the modest Istanbulite fighting the strongman to keep his hard-earned job.

Yet the Istanbul re-vote signifies much more than resistance to an extrajudicial power-grab. The campaigns of both candidates betray a battle for the soul of Turkey – a contest between a republic defined by a monolithic one-man regime and one defined by pluralist democracy.

Ekrem Imamoglu won Istanbul’s mayoral election on March 31 as the candidate of Turkey’s pro-secular main opposition party, though only with essential support from a broader coalition of voters. Despite Erdogan’s efforts to paint the entire opposition as terrorists, his candidate lost. Now in the race for the rerun, the strongman’s media and loyal officials have focused on propagating a new argument to undermine their opponent: namely, that Imamoglu is “Greek.”

Citing the recent mayor-elect’s roots in Trabzon, a coastal Turkish province on the Black Sea with a historically Greek Orthodox population, officials from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have claimed Imamoglu is a crypto Greek – and Imamoglu’s supporters in Trabzon are allegedly Greeks “disguised as Muslims.” In the most telling remark on the topic, one AKP deputy chair spoke of “many questions marks” surrounding Imamoglu’s ethno-religious identity, demanding Imamoglu “prove that your spirit, heart and mind is with the Turkish nation.”

The strongman’s media and loyal officials have focused on propagating a new argument to undermine their opponent: namely, that Imamoglu is “Greek.”

Claims of alleged non-Muslim and non-Turkish identity are a common slander in Turkish politics. Nearly every influential Turkish leader – from the country’s secular founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to his Islamist antithesis Erdogan – has faced such accusations. Factions across the political spectrum have long harbored deep antagonisms toward Turkey’s non-Muslim and non-Turkish minorities – a grim reality that dates back to the country’s turbulent journey from a multi-national empire to a Turkish-dominated nation-state. Given Erdogan’s own embrace of ethno-nationalist populism after 2015 –as epitomized by his maxim “one nation, one flag, one homeland, one state”– the opposition could have brushed off the allegations against Imamoglu as just another racist slur by the AKP-led Islamist-ultranationalist coalition.

One city, two visions

Instead of an isolated incident, the slur has snowballed into a polemic that has become front and center in the mayoral campaign. Indeed, more so than any ballot under Erdogan’s uninterrupted 17-year rule, the Istanbul re-vote has become a microcosm of the wider battle between two competing visions for the Turkish republic.

In the March 31 municipal elections, Erdogan’s AKP lost Turkey’s leading metropolises, whose economies account for almost two thirds of the country’s GDP. The loss dealt Erdogan a heavy blow, but, as the upcoming re-run shows, no defeat matched the agony of losing Istanbul. Erdogan places a premium on Istanbul’s pulse not only as a politician but also as an Istanbulite, a fact central to his identity. Erdogan is well aware of not only Istanbul’s financial might, but also its symbolic power. Even as he attempts to rule Turkey with an iron fist, Erdogan’s imperial vision begs for Istanbul’s consent. As the president has long warned, “If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.”

Istanbul is no ordinary city. It is one of the world’s most potent symbols of diversity and coexistence. The cosmopolitan capital of the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires for centuries, Istanbul carries profound meaning for myriad ethnic and religious communities around the world. Even after Turkey’s transition to a nation-state in the early twentieth century, Istanbul continued to host Turkey’s largest concentration of minorities. With its magnificent mosques, churches, and synagogues, Istanbul has remained a monument to diversity. In the eyes of countless writers, artists, and intellectuals, Istanbul has long been what made Turkey a “bridge between East and West” — a metaphor that millions of Turkish citizens are proud to market to this day.

Dome of the Istanbul Ashkenazi Synagogue, 2008.
Domes of Hagia Sophia, 2009.
Wikicommons/ Tranxon. Some rights reserved.

With its magnificent mosques, churches, and synagogues, Istanbul has remained a monument to diversity.

But Erdogan has had other designs for his country – and city. Turkey’s longest-serving political leader, Erdogan has sought to challenge the country’s secular republican principles, and emphasized instead the primacy of Sunni-Muslim identity – pegged to an Islamist vision of the Ottoman Empire as a sectarian enterprise whose great religio-political heritage was effaced by successive secular reforms.

Both as the Ottoman imperial capital and as modern Turkey’s richest municipality (with a $10 billion annual budget), Istanbul has been the natural site for Erdogan to embed his project. Armed with lucrative contracts and a voracious new Islamist bourgeoisie, Erdogan not only unleashed a construction blitz that crumpled Istanbul’s historic silhouette under mushrooming high-rises and shopping malls. He also bankrolled a slew of lavish projects aimed at an ostentatious Islamization of the city, including Turkey’s largest mosque atop an Istanbul hill, whose appearance imitates Ottoman royal architecture. In one of his most controversial moves, less than a week before the March elections, Erdogan endorsed turning the Hagia Sophia – a Byzantine-era church converted by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II into a mosque and by Ataturk into a museum – back into a mosque. Along with the proliferation of Islamic banks, charities, dormitories, and other institutions, the Islamists have moved to gradually “reclaim” Istanbul’s public spaces.


Six summers ago, Erdogan’s social engineering efforts triggered their first major backslash in Istanbul. When the government cracked down on several dozen environmentalists opposing the demolition of a public park, millions took to the streets in protest, first in Istanbul, and later in almost every other city around the country. At stake was not only some quaint park in a downtown square, but rather the ethos of a city marked by the free expression of diversity and dissent. Protestors old and young, from LGBT activists to the “anti-capitalist Muslims,” gathered in Taksim Square in an air of festival. That summer, the Erdogan regime subdued them with water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets, slaughtering 11 in the process. Barely any expression of diversity was tolerated after that. One of the city’s annual celebrations of diversity, the Istanbul pride parade, has been banned since 2015. The situation worsened after a failed coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016, at which point dissent became synonymous with terrorism.

The rise to prominence of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was in no small part a product of this onslaught on Istanbul and the values the city has for centuries aspired to represent. The co-chairs of this predominantly Kurdish, but programmatically post-nationalist, progressive party are a man and a woman, he a Kurd and she a Turk. It supports the working-class – long neglected by Erdogan save during election cycles and exploited by his cronies. It also represents Turkey’s other minorities, including Armenians, Syriacs, Yazidis, and Alevis. The HDP’s young and charismatic co-leader, Selahattin Demirtas, emerged as a star after he won nearly 10 percent in the presidential elections of August 2014, and within fifteen months carried his party into parliament with a 13 percent vote – the highest any pro-Kurdish candidate ever managed, with a sizable portion from non-Kurdish voters. Erdogan has decimated this party since, branding it as a terrorist front and jailing thousands of its members, including its co-leaders, over the last three years.

Spring comes back to Istanbul

This March, spring came back to Istanbul. Imamoglu emerged as a political superstar in the March 31 election, winning Istanbul for the secular opposition against all odds, its first victory in 25 years. A political outsider until then, Imamoglu’s brand took shape in the aftermath of the election, as the AKP contested his victory, then allowed him to take up his position as mayor before finally snatching it back. Coming from a family of pious social conservatives, Imamoglu, with his deep commitment to liberal values, emerged as the city’s anti-Erdogan, the Istanbulite with an appreciation for the city’s multicultural ethos.

In his 17-day tenure as mayor, Imamoglu took utmost care to embrace all Istanbul residents, his voters and political opponents alike. At a time of fear- and hate-mongering by the ruling party, he boldly embraced Istanbul’s ethnic and religious minorities, prompting a wave of pluralist and inclusive messaging from around the country in stark contrast to the ruling party’s scapegoating attempts. His Passover celebration message racked up over 120,000 retweets.

That’s when the attacks began. The day after the Passover tweet, Devlet Bahceli, the steely septuagenarian leader of Erdogan’s far-right ultra-nationalist ally Nationalist Action Party (MHP), attempted to discredit Imamoglu by saying the young mayor “sends greetings to all, from the Armenians to the Jews.” This invective spiraled into the “Greek” crisis when a Greek newspaper ran a laudatory profile of Imamoglu. Just this week, the Islamist media produced a photograph of Imamoglu in Thessaloniki, Greece, taken during a trip in 2016. “Here is Imamoglu,” one newspaper announced, “posing with … a map representing the Greek desire to divide Turkey”.

Byzantine mosaics in Pammakaristos church, Istanbul.
Byzantine mosaics in Pammakaristos church, Istanbul.
Wikicommons/G.dallorto. Some rights reserved.

The battle is on

Throughout this ordeal, meanwhile, the pro-Erdogan media continued to slander the HDP and its former co-leader Demirtas as terrorists. In the run up to March elections, Demirtas called on his supporters to go to the polls and vote “against fascism,” swaying the election results in Imamoglu’s favor. On June 23, Istanbul’s Kurds are poised to play their part for the Turkish Republic yet again.

“Pluralism is not our enemy,” Imamoglu wrote in a June 4 op-ed in the Washington Post. “We must embrace it, and play to the strength that diversity brings.” This is the struggle of Imamoglu, and the millions of Istanbulites who fear their city, and republic, falling into an autocracy that they are destined to reject. With over 80,000 volunteers already signed-up to monitor the ballots against electoral fraud or irregularity on June 23, the battle is on.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData