Ekrem Imamoglu: Turkey's rising political star

Istanbul (AFP) –


A softly-spoken football fan and former district mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu has come from nowhere to become a figurehead of the long-suffering Turkish opposition.

Although forced to rerun his Istanbul mayoral electoral campaign after his March victory was annulled due to alleged irregularities, the setback has done wonders for his profile both at home and abroad.

"What we are doing now is a fight for democracy and mobilisation for democracy. It will of course be a revolution once we carry it to its conclusion," he told AFP in May.

Little known before the March vote, his win was a massive upset for the ruling party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamic-rooted political movement had ruled the city for a quarter of a century.

Paradoxically, having his victory annulled by the top election body has boosted his online visibility, not least on Twitter where his following has soared from 350,000 to more than 2.5 million since the first vote.

Born in 1970 in the Black Sea coastal city of Trabzon in northeast Turkey, Imamoglu studied business administration at Istanbul University then completed a masters degree in management.

He worked in the family construction business before entering local politics a decade ago, becoming mayor of the district of Beylikduzu in western Istanbul in 2014. There, he gained a reputation as a competent administrator in the affluent neighbourhood.

One passion he shares with the Turkish president is a love of football. The Turkish leader was a semi-professional player in his youth, while Imamoglu played at amateur level and maintains links with the Trabzonspor team.

He is also a practising Muslim, which has allowed him to broaden the appeal of the staunchly secular Republican People's Party (CHP) after years of lacklustre election performances.

During his first campaign in March, Imamoglu opted for a low-key, on-the-ground approach, hoping discretion would be an advantage against his well-known ruling party rival, Binali Yildirim.

- Positive rhetoric -

Since then, he has come out of his shell, taking a more combative approach over the "extravagant" spending he found during his brief 18-day stint as mayor of the Istanbul municipality.

There was controversy last month after CNN Turk appeared to cut short an interview with Imamoglu when he held up placards depicting alleged waste, such as the high numbers of "unnecessary" official cars.

But the key to his success has been a relentlessly positive rhetoric -- in contrast to the often vicious personal attacks of Turkish politics -- and his easy rapport with people on the street, where he is regularly seen taking selfies with voters in bazaars and cafes.

"Imamoglu is a very natural man who can talk easily with people," says Zilan Karakurt, who films live videos of Imamoglu's campaign for social media. "This is something not every candidate can do."

His marketing has been astute, particularly his choice of slogan for the new campaign: "Everything will be fine". That came from a 13-year-old boy called Berkay, who ran after Imamoglu's election bus shouting the line.

It has come to epitomise his style of campaigning, and has caught on with businesses and artists who have often been fearful of challenging the ruling party in the past.

After 17 years of AKP rule, it has also brought fresh hope to the CHP, even if the next presidential election is not until 2023.

Imamoglu himself remains coy about his future prospects.

"Time will tell," he told AFP when asked if he might follow Erdogan's path from the Istanbul mayorship to national leadership.