Nobody knows who pulled the video out of the net, but the excitement was quite high. The Lord Mayor of Istanbul visits the tomb of the Conqueror, Mehmet the Second, who stormed Christian Constantinople in 1453. Ekrem İmamoğlu strolls through the mausoleum in the video from 2019, his hands clasped behind his back: For the mayor, the visit to the grave was clearly not an act of personal homage, but one of many mandatory appointments.
Not for others. The Turkish judiciary has now started preliminary investigations because of the pictures from 2019. The accusation is of “disrespectful behavior” towards the Ottoman Sultan. The interior minister tweeted: “From my personal point of view, that was a criminal offense.” İmamoğlu dismissed this as “absurd”: “We experience a lot of amusing things. It looks like there is more to come.”
Actually, the president and parliament in Turkey should not be re-elected until June 2023, but two years before that there is the dirtiest primary campaign. Head of State Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been in power for 18 years, first as prime minister, then as president. But now the conservative Islamic populist is losing more and more support. Rapidly rising inflation, the economic and currency crisis that has persisted since 2019, Corona and the resulting collapse in tourism: The Turks are longing for the fat years in the second half of the 2000s – the economy was booming and the country was considered to becoming a EU member.
Liberals and seculars may resent Erdoğan for increasingly authoritarian rule, undermining the rule of law, and strangling the media. But large parts of his own supporters see above all that the president no longer delivers in economics. The foreign policy and military adventures in Iraq, Syria and Libya cannot hide the fact that there is a lack of jobs, inflation and the collapse of the currency.
Erdoğan’s emphatic Islamic gestures also serve a small Islamist core electorate: the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a Friday mosque, the ban on the sale of alcohol during Ramadan, the termination of the Istanbul Convention for the Protection of Women. All of this does not satisfy traditional believers in the long term. “It’s the economy, stupid!” by Bill Clinton’s advisor James Carville sounds like this in Turkish: “Empty saucepans make choices.”
This is reflected in surveys. Some opinion polls now see Erdoğan alongside or behind the most important opposition politicians. Even better than Istanbul’s mayor, his CHP party colleague Mansur Yavaş is leading in a direct comparison: the mayor of Ankara could beat the president. And when asked by one of the survey institutes who they would definitely not vote anymore, 46.5 percent of those questioned answered: Erdoğan. In December 2019 it was only 35 percent.
Things are also going badly for the president at party level. The government alliance made up of its conservative Islamic AKP and the ultra-right MHP is just on par with the opposition alliance made up of İmamoğlu’s social democratic CHP, the nationalist Iyi party and some small parties. In the fight for parliament, Erdoğan’s worst enemy would be decisive: the HDP. The president harassed the pro-Kurdish party, the third largest opposition force in parliament. He has their leaders locked up, their mayors removed from office, he even wanted to see the party banned.
The reason is always the same: The HDP is in truth the political arm of the Kurdish guerrilla PKK, which is classified as a terrorist organization not only in Turkey. Erdoğan can therefore hardly count on the HDP voters: most of them will support his challengers.
Therefore, the government camp shifts the political debate to the legal field. Decisions are made without any legal basis in the form of “ordinances”: for example, police officers who beat citizens during demonstrations are no longer allowed to take photos or film “because of the civil servants’ personal rights”. Or that alcohol cannot be sold during Ramadan. And the Bureau of Statistics, Turkstat, is suing a private research institute called Enag. It claims that the office is tricking the numbers: inflation is not 17, but well over 30 percent.
The judiciary is only an executive body
The judiciary is only the executive body of the presidential palace and becomes a stick in the pre-election campaign. Prosecutors are investigating not only against the opposition politician İmamoğlu, but also against his party colleagues, against CHP boss Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu or the Istanbul CHP boss Canan Kaftancıoğlu. The allegations mostly sound far-fetched – like the allegations about the visit to the sultan’s grave.
So İmamoğlu is also leading a campaign against the “Istanbul Canal”. The gigantic project is Erdoğan’s idea: an artificial waterway, parallel to the Bosporus. Experts say the canal will endanger the drinking water supply of Istanbul, a city of 16 million, and will ecologically upset both the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. İmamoğlu puts up posters: “Who needs the Istanbul Canal?” The public prosecutor came forward immediately and was investigating because of the “disruption of state projects”.
Erdoğan has reasons to fear Imamoglu. In 2019, the CHP man was able to wrest control of Istanbul from the AKP with the help of the HDP, supporting him. And whoever wins Istanbul usually wins the next election in the country. Before he was promoted to prime minister in 2003, Erdoğan himself was mayor of the metropolis, and gained his reputation as a deal-maker.
That is why Ankara thwarted the daily governance of Istanbul: Nothing should be conducive to the popularity of the mayor and his CHP. Financing for new metro lines will be curbed, access to the tolls for the Bosporus bridges will be blocked. And when the mayor had donations collected to support the poor during the corona pandemic, the interior minister intervened: “The city administration has no right to do so.”
No economic vision
Erdoğan, so far a master in setting new exciting and seductive topics, is cornered. His coup and terrorist allegations against his political opponents are repeated, his foreign policy has isolated Turkey, he has to backtrack politically against countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
And what the maker of previous major infrastructure projects such as airports and bridges is missing today is an economic vision: a new major project that will create thousands and thousands of jobs. That leaves the environmentally politically insane 15 billion project of the “Istanbul Canal”, the President himself proudly calls it “my craziest project”. In any case, the foundation stone for the first canal bridge is to be laid in June.