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İstanbul Election Re-Run: The Culmination of an AKP Policy of ‘Sunnification’

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

The Justice and Development Party (or AKP, represented by the colour yellow) has been ruling Turkey throughout most of  the 21st century, a fact that might have led some to forget that other political parties do exist as well in today’s Turkey: even Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (or CHP, represented by the colour red), the main opposition, but also the National Movement Party (or MHP, represented by the colour blue), the AKP’s recent Islamofascist friend and ally. These three parties, in conjunction with the Kurds, represented by the proscribed terror group PKK (or Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê meaning Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the political party HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party, represented by the colour purple), dominate the country’s political discourse.

On 31 March 2019, Turkey held nationwide local elections . . . elections that once again saw the ruling AKP carry the day – with two notable exceptions, however: the metropolitan municipalities of Ankara and İstanbul were won by candidates running for the opposition CHP. And particularly, the loss of the latter was a severe blow for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the AKP’s party leader and the nation’s first popularly elected Absolute President (or Prez). As a result, though quite momentous, it did not come as a surprise that the İstanbul outcome was eventually challenged and a re-run ordered. In spite of this tried and tested AKP strategy, on 23 June, the CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu once again emerged victorious, even gathering a grand total of 54.21% of the vote, leaving his AKP rival Binali Yıldırm trailing with a mere 44.99%.

‘The Prez,’ Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

During the original election run on 31 March, nationwide, more than 57 million Turks (or Turkish citizens) were registered to vote, and, on the day itself, voter turnout stood at just under 85%. And subsequently, Turkey’s electoral map looks overwhelmingly yellow (with a few blue allied dots) and a number of red and purple spots in the fringes. The Prez and his henchmen tried hard to portray these local elections as a kind of referendum on whether or not the Turkish public-at-large was still in favour of rigid AKP rule and its surreptitious slide into a what I have termed a “post-Kemalist reality” in 2016. And, by and large, the outcome seemed to all but vindicate Tayyip Erdoğan’s drive towards re-imagining the Republic of Turkey as a pseudo-Ottoman Sunni superpower in the region and beyond. Were it not that two major exceptions bucked the trend – Ankara and İstanbul. And particularly the latter defeat was hard to swallow for the Prez – after all, that’s where he made his own debut on Turkey’s political stage in 1994, and the city’s patronage network is an important source of monetary income for his many hangers-on, whether individual or institutional (in the shape of pious and less pious foundations or vakıfs and the like). This loss of İstanbul (and to a minor extent, Ankara) led the political scientist Dr Burcu Değirmen-Dysart to argue somewhat hyperbolically that “Turkey’s March 31 local elections revealed that more and more people grew discontent with Erdogan’s and his party’s tightening authoritarian grip,” commenting about a month later (30 April 2019). And two weeks following the AKP’s lackluster performance in İstanbul, the news agency Reuters matter-of-factly reported that the outcome “was annulled last week [6 May 2019] in Istanbul and will be re-run on June 23.” Pundits and other know-it-alls (myself included) immediately began pontificating that this re-run could only mean that the Prez had a plan and that the AKP contender Binali Yıldırım (whom I have christened Hapless during his tenure as Turkey’s final PM, 24 May 2016-16 April 2017) was sure to assume residency in Saraçhane (where the offices of the İBB or İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality are housed) at the end of this month.

The Persistence of Memory: İstanbul as a City of Faith

Though in the immediate aftermath of the İstanbul elections, nobody really knew much about the CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu, other than the fact that he had led the İstanbul municipality of Beylikdüzü (2014-19) or even beyond that he originally hailed from the Black Sea region’s city of Trabzon. In the intervening period (6 May-23 June), he made sure that there’d be no one left in Turkey (or abroad, for that matter) who didn’t know the name İmamoğlu. His re-election campaign adopted the slogan #HerŞeyÇokGüzelOlacak (or ‘Everything will be very beautiful’ (or good), and in the days before the re-run, his innumerable trips all over the place, his speeches and television appearances turned the softly-spoken man into a veritable anti-AKP icon, appealing not just to Erdoğan’s traditional enemy base but also to Turks whom one might normally assume to be AKP supporters, if not Erdoğan voters. İmamoğlu and his team used 47 days to craft a skillful operation that knew a couple of highlights sure to make a wider audience enamoured with the CHP candidate, and not just in İstanbul. The campaign period coincided with the month of Ramazan (the month-long period of fast observed by pious Muslims throughout the world, 5 May-3 June 2019) – which is normally a time in Turkey when hungry taxi drivers become irate and nothing much happens otherwise, but AKP supporters (or obviously ‘pious’ fasting Turks) become highly visible at night, strolling through specially erected Ramazan markets, as the one on the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet, as well as on Turkey’s national television channels hosting requisite pious fasting programmes for the duration. But not this year, this year a lively and colourful election campaign was fought, with İmamoğlu as a pious man from a solidly conservative background (in the period 1984-87, his father was a member of Turgut Özal [1927-93]’s ANAP [or Motherland Part], a right-wing political party that enacted many pro-Islamic policies and was nebulously linked to the Naqshbandi brotherhood), able to charm people all around while abstaining from food or drink from sunrise to sunset.

İmamoğlu’s Stratagems and Strategies

In my opinion, a well-played stratagem of İmamoğlu’s was his appearance on CNN Türk, effectively just another AKP propaganda channel (20 May 2019). The well-known journalist Ahmet Hakan conducted the interview, which he conspicuously cut short right before the CHP candidate was about to talk about his plans for İstanbul and his determination to root out waste and corruption in the city’s municipal offices. İmamoğlu’s team had clearly given a number of advertising clips to the channel beforehand, clips which were aired during the intervals. One of these clips told the backstory of İmamoğlu’s by-now famous slogan #HerŞeyÇokGüzelOlacak. The footage shown appeared to consist of recordings made by  İmamoğlu’s team during the ongoing campaign. One clip focused on a boy who kept chasing İmamoğlu’s convoy and at one stage, the candidate talks directly to the boy who addresses the candidate with the colloquial phrase Abi, reserved for men advanced of one’s own age. The boy literally said, ‘Ekrem Abi, everything will be very beautiful’ (or, “her şey çok güzel olacak”). CNN Türk aired this clip (and many others) during the intermissions in the broadcast, and its effect on the viewers must have been far from insignificant. But, in spite of the generally positive mood engendered, at one stage during the interview, İmamoğlu countered claims that, were he to become Mayor of İstanbul, alcoholic beverages would be served in social facilities pertaining to the Metropolitan Municipality (Belediye Sosyal Tesisleri). In response, he related how he had established six social facilities in Beylikdüzü, and that alcohol is definitely not being served there. Though this was but a passing segment in the interview, this affirmation that as Mayor of İstanbul, İmamoğlu would all but continue Erdoğan’s strict restriction policy on the free  distribution of alcoholic beverages surely shocked some viewers, albeit many shrugged it off. Still, as I explained as long as ago as 2011, a “strict interpretation of Islam explicitly prohibits the drinking of intoxicants in this world.” But not in Kemalist Turkey, which was very different from its Muslim neighbours in this respect, as “Turkey’s Muslim citizens have had legal access to alcohol since 1926.” This free availability of alcoholic beverages has become problematic in AKP-led Turkey. In 2016, the Prez famously praised the Turkish yoghurt beverage of Ayran as the country’s “national drink” in favour of the aniseed liquor Ra, normally cited in this context. But apart from this brief episode, Hakan and İmamoğlu successfully skirted dealing with the issue of Islam during the interview, arguably taking it as a given that, in AKP-led Turkey, adherence to the Prophet’s tenets is universal and not to be questioned. Still many secularist opponents of the AKP regime must have felt somewhat disappointed by the CHP candidate’s assurances.

Another well-played strategem came at the end of the fast, in Turkey marked by a three-day public holiday (traditionally known as Şeker Bayramı, but now as Ramazan Bayramı, under AKP directives) when joyful celebrations occasion family and other visits (known in Turkish as Bayramlaşma). İmamoğlu flew home to the Black Sea region (his home turf which is known in Turkish as his memleket, 5 June 2019). İmamoğlu planned to alight in the cities of Trabzon, Giresun and Ordu, using social media accounts to promulgate the news. His get-together with the people of Trabzon morphed into a giant meeting, exceeding all expectations and surprising everyone. The rally counted many hundreds, many thousands of participants and İmamoğlu addressed the crowd in a most persuasive way: “I would like to remind you, as your brother who knows he will be chosen anew during the [upcoming] elections for the Metropolitan Municipality of İstanbul, that I will also engage in [this] fight for democracy. For that reason I am in need of the support of all of my fellow-occupants [of my memleket] who are here. Pray for me and it is therefore absolutely necessary that you talk to your relatives in İstanbul.” In this cunning way, the CHP candidate employed his visit to his memleket to boost his national visibility, while simultaneously placating İstanbul voters with a Black Sea background to cast their ballots in his favuor rather than for his AKP rival, which would have been their natural course given that the Prez’s own memleket is adjacent home city of Rize. Moreover, the Black Sea area’s inhabitants are notoriously pious as well as “ingenious, witty, and kind,” if we are to believe the İstanbul-based journalist Jennifer Hattam. And the CHP candidate’s words really seem to contain hints of possible long-term strategies to be pursued in years to come, as İmamoğlu rather emphatically stressed  that he will “fight for democracy.”

In Search of a Counter-Strategy

Whereas the opposition capitalised on the themes of hope and faith, the AKP camp opted to rehash its well-worn themes of fear and unrest, falling short of doing a complete re-run of the 2015 narrative. At the very outset of June, with 22 days to go, for instance, the Prez himself addressed a crowd of believers, admonishing them with the words, “[t]his is İstanbul, otherwise known as İslambol [meaning replete or adorned with Islam]. This is not Constantinople, but there are those who would like to see [the city] as such.” Harking back to an Ottoman tradition, clearly attested in the reigns of Ahmed III (1703-30) and his son Abdülhamid I (1774-89) (but according to some, even present in Mehmed II (1451-81)’s day, though the latter seems dubious at best), Tayyip Erdoğan attempted to frighten his Muslim audience that a CHP victory would usher in a return of repressive anti-Islamic policies commonly associated with the figure of Atatürk and his party in the minds of Turkey’s pious Islamists. Arguably, Erdoğan based his allegations on a spurious article that appeared in the Greek press following İmamoğlu’s 31 March victory, an article that received a lot of coverage in Turkey’s AKP-dominated media landscape. The piece carries the provocative headline “Ekrem Imamoglu: The ‘Greek’ who ‘conquered’ Istanbul’.” This slanderous sample of printed libel declares summarily that “Ekrem Imamoglu is according to some reports of Pontian origin and a Greek-speaker.” Going back to Ottoman days, the north-eastern corner of the Black Sea littoral was home to a sizeable Greek-speaking population group, usually referred to as ‘Pontian Greeks.’ This Orthodox population group was ethnically cleansed in the period running up to the establishment of the Turkish Republic (1923).

Imprisoned: Abdullah Öcalan

But with four days to go before election day, the Prez played the Kurdish card. In 2015, he had used that card to awaken fears of renewed war and conflict with the Kurdish terror group PKK, to coax citizens into voting for the AKP in the then-electoral re-run (1 November 2015). But now the AKP decided to use another hand. The propaganda rag Daily Sabah put it like this: “Abdullah Öcalan [popularly known as Apo], the jailed leader of the PKK terrorist group, called on pro-PKK People’s Democratic Party (HDP) not to side with any other party in the Istanbul mayoral election rerun on Sunday. Öcalan made the statement in a letter that was shared with members of the press Thursday [, 20 June 2019] by academic Ali Kemal Özcan.” In other words, Apo all but tacitly supported the Prez asking Kurds not to vote rather than vote for the CHP candidate. An intervention that, in the aftermath of İmamoğlu’s unexpectedly large 23 June victory, led Ahmet Hakan to proclaim that “[t]his election’s biggest loser is  Abdullah Öcalan,” a statement that must have left many baffled and flabbergasted. If anything though, this weird episode, which even saw Apo’s brother Osman Öcalan appear on the state-run television channel TRT Kurdî, all but discloses the apparently close and even organic links between Öcalan and Erdoğan, between the PKK and the AKP. With regard to the actual İstanbul re-run, though, appearing before a crowd of businessmen a week prior to the vote, the Prez appeared sanguine (even somewhat resigned or even reconciled), saying that this “election only aims to appoint a mayor,” even calling the whole thing but a “simple change in the shopfront.” Explaining himself somewhat, Erdoğan added that the AKP holds 25 out of a total 39 municipalities in the metropolitan area of İstanbul (16 June 2019). And, following his massive victory, İmamoğlu again descends upon his offices in Saraçhane, only to find that “his powers and those of fellow mayors across the country are being whittled down, [as] part of a broader strategy to hobble opposition-run municipalities’ ability to govern effectively,” as expressed by the always well-informed journalist Amberin Zaman.

Mustafa Kemal’s Party Embraces Islam: The Culmination of the AKP Policy of Sunnification

Baykal: former CHP leader.

In spite of this seeming entente between an erstwhile Marxist-Leninist outfit-now-espousing Libertarian Municipalism (PKK) and a political party grounded in political Islam and arguably embracing Pan-Islamism (AKP), the reality on the ground appears very different. The reality on the ground in the New Turkey (as coined by the AKP) is such that its policy of Sunnification (my coinage) has led to a near-universal acceptance that Turkey’s future lies within bounds established in the 7th century CE, albeit employing the full technological and scientific benefits of the 21st century (in a Turkish version of what the left-liberal Pakistani journalist Nadeem Paracha has termed ‘Maududi-ism’). And the vast majority of Turks have now voluntarily adopted a lifestyle supposedly more in line with the Prophet’s example. Still, the press seems happy to report every now and then that younger generations are turning away from religion and that even İman-Hatip (secondary education institution intended to train government employed imams or prayer leaders) graduates are turning towards deism in favour theism (meaning that they seem to be all but abandoning Allah). These arguably diversionary if not downright ‘fake’ reports notwithstanding, the concept of Islam has well and truly taken its place at the heart of Turkish society again, in rural as well as urban settings. The world of politics has also been deeply affected by this trend. The CHP, as the party founded by Mustafa Kemal-who-became-Atatürk, has quite naturally also been subject to this encroachment. In the course of the year 2008, the then-party leader Deniz Baykal initiated accepting headscarfed women into the ranks of the Republican People’s Party. In February 2009, Baykal was quoted as saying that he can see “signs [that] a new political wind has started blowing swiftly” throughout Turkey. In a similar ceremony held in the same year’s November, he made the following programmatic announcement: “[w]e are all on our way, together with [women wearing] headscarfs, [women wearing] turbans [which in today’s Turkey refers to more elaborate forms of head-covering], bare-headed [women], young, old, women, men.” In Kemalist Turkey, the “thorny headscarf issue” signified opposition to a greater visibility of Islam in Turkey’s public and political life. The Quran seems quite adamant that women should dress modestly, particularly avoiding gratuitous displays of cleavage, which should be covered or veiled (‘hijab’, Quran 24:31). But the usage of the term “hijab” has led to the universal assumption that women should cover their hair as well as their cleavage. For that reason, in Kemalist Turkey, headscarfed women were a focal point in the debate surrounding Islam and fundamentalism (irtica). Baykal’s move to accept headscarfed women into the CHP ranks thus denoted a sharp reversal in attitude and appreciation on the part of the party leadership. As leader of the CHP, Baykal (1992-2010) was at the time fighting the PM Tayyip Erdoğan, and in that capacity he oftentimes attacked his opponent using the most vitriolic of words. In his long political career though he never really tasted any tangible success or victory. And the same is true for his successor Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu who took up his job on 22 May 2010. Prior to taking over Baykal’s job, when he was the Vice Chairman of the CHP faction, Kılıçdaroğlu declared publicy that “[w]e need to open our arms to” headscarfed ladies, indicating that this “overture” would not lead to losses but instead to “profitable” outcomes in the long run. A strategy that led the rather prominent CHP member Canan Kaftancıoğlu to admit during a live television broadcast on 11 May 2017 that her party is committing “taqiyya in order to gain votes from the right,” adding that she was “concerned” about that. The concept of ‘Taqiyya’ is an Islamic concept usually associated with the Shi’a faction but really an “integral part of Islam,” as can be read on a dedicated webpage provided by the Non Profit Organisation, the Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project (DILP). The same source defines the concept as a “precautionary dissimulation or denial of religious [or ideological] belief and practice in the face of persecution.” As a result, Kaftancıoğlu all but admitted that her party had been sliding towards accepting the new Islamic status quo in Turkey, albeit that she personally interprets this development as a conscious tactic or ruse rather than a straightforward political development – a political development that sees the nominally social-democratic Republican People’s Party adopting right-wing and/or outright Islamic or Islamist attitudes and policies.

But whether merely taqiyya or not, it is only now that the openly pious and devout Ekrem İmamoğlu has twice won the mayor’s seat of metropolitan İstanbul, that Kılıçdaroğlu’s party been successful, even allowing the latter to climb on top of an election bus to give a ‘balcony speech’ – something that has been turned into a political tradition by Tayyip Erdoğan in this century. Despite the fact that the actual winner of the contest was İmamoğlu, Kılıçdaroğlu gave his speech as the “architect of the 31 March victory.” For the party leader had appointed the candidate who was to win the city of İstanbul in a landslide – a choice reminiscent of his pick of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu to compete for the presidency in 2014. Back then, Tayyip Erdoğan easily defeated his rivals in the first round with a handsome landslide. Kılıçdaroğlu’s pick was greeted with shock and amazement at the time, as the CHP candidate was the “former head of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC),” and ideologically very much in line with Erdoğan and his AKP as a self-professed academic with Islamist leanings. In the same way, this year’s victorious pick also seems at odds with the self-described ‘secularist’ CHP. In the aftermath of the 31 March elections, the academic theologian and writer Prof. Dr Hilmi Demir tweeted the insightful query: “[t]he elections were not won by the CHP but by İmamoğlu and Mansur [the now-mayor of Ankara]. Why did they win, because they are not [really] part of the CHP.” In a crafty manner, Dr Demir utilised the 140 characters at his disposal to pierce any kind of delusional bubble that might have engulfed CHP voters in İstanbul, Ankara and beyond. The successful Ankara contender Mansur Yavaş is a politician hailing from the  Islamofascist tradition of the MHP who had in 2009 tried to become mayor of Turkey’s capital running on an MHP ticket. When he was not put forward as an MHP candidate in 2013, Yavaş joined the CHP instead, finally reaching his goal this year.

As for Kılıçdaroğlu’s İstanbul pick, beyond the right-wing atmosphere in his family and personal life, his character as a pious Muslim led many to assume that İmamoğlu would join the AKP to become another henchman. A little book that appeared in April 2016, carrying the unlikely title Ekrem İmamoğlu Benim Sevgili Başkanım (or, ‘Ekrem İmamoğlu My Beloved Leader’), written by the journalist Şirin Mine Kılıç, paints a sympathetic portrait of the man and his vision. Kılıç describes the politician as an individual endowed with a strong sense of “responsibility” from a young age, starting in his primary school days, also inserting the adjectives “honest” and “sincere” into the descriptive assessment of her ‘Beloved Leader’. Kılıç writes that “his political preference became clear from 2000 onward. He became a convinced CHP voter.” The reason was his personal discovery of the figure of Atatürk and his role in the foundation of the country, Mine Kılıç argues.  İmamoğlu joined the CHP in 2008, and was elected as the head of the party’s youth wing the following year. The local CHP chapter in the Istanbul district of Beylikdüzü selected him as its president on 16 September 2009 – being re-elected on 8 March 2012, only to resign on 15 July 2013 to run for mayor of Beylikdüzü. On 30 March 2014 he was elected as mayor, easily defeating the AKP incumbent Yusuf Uzun. Proving his pious credentials as mayor, İmamoğlu marked the 77th anniversary of Atatürk’s death by organising a reading of the Mevlid in the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Mosque in Beylikdüzü on 10 November 2015. The construction of this huge mosque, able to accommodate up to 4,000 worshippers, begun in the 1990s, and was but completed in the first decade of this century. And İmamoğlu also had the building and its adjacent area refurbished in the same year (2015), even incorporating a dedicated compound for the celebration of weddings (known as Nikah Salonu, in Turkish). Combining his dedication ot the Prophet and his love for Atatürk, İmamoğlu employed the mosque for a public recital of a poem (Mathnawi, or Mesnevi in Tiurkish) celebrating the birth of Muhammad on 12 Rabi’ul-Awwal. In the Ottoman tradition, the Mathnawi Vesîletü’n-necât, written by Süleyman Çelebi in the year 1409/812, stands out as the prime example in this context. The first documented public recitation of the Mevlid occurred in the reign of Sultan Murad III (1574-95), in the year 1588/996. In fact, it is all but customary in pious (or Islamist) circles in Turkey to have the Mevlid recited on important occasions, such as university graduations and funerals, or the anniversary of Atatürk’s death in this case.

A False Dawn?

What I have termed the AKP policy of Sunnification has now come full circle in Turkey, I would argue. The reins of government are still firmly held by the Prez and his AKP henchmen. Beyond purely party political contests and rivalries, however, it seems beyond doubt that the state founded by Mustafa Kemal in 1923 no longer exists. Instead, the New Turkey is a place rejoicing in manifold manfestations of pseudo-Ottoman kitsch and an increasing encroachment of Muslim mores into public and private life. Even the CHP, a one-time bastion of so-called ‘Turkish Secularism,’ has now completely succumbed to the seductive lure of Quranic and other pious recitations, as evidenced in the recent reversals in Ankara and İstanbul. Already in early March, the academic and political commentator Erol Mütercimler, whom the journalist and HaberTürk columnist Oray Eğin has somewhat flippantly called “[t]he man who knows everything,” predicted that the CHP candidate would be victorious in İstanbul, if able to capture “at least 9% of those who [normally] vote AKP,” as well as 4% of MHP voters. In the same breath, he also remarked that İmamoğlu hails from “rightwing, conservative roots.” And now, the previously little know mayor of Beylikdüzü district of Istanbul has stepped on the national (as well as international) stage with a bang, with a big bang even. In Trabzon, he told a quasi-hysterical crowd that his intention is to “fight for democracy,” and, if anything, I would argue that İmamoğlu is positioning himself for a future confrontation with none other than  Tayyip Erdoğan himself.

The local press and population seem to support such a development, and on an international level, it looks as if the now-newly installed Mayor of Metropolitan of İstanbul is being appropriated wholesale in order to be groomed for a future role. In the wake of election day, the New York Times carried the headline “A New Dawn in Turkey After Erdogan Loses Istanbul” (24 June 2019). İmamoğlu appeared on CNN International via video-link from Taksim to chat with Christiane Amapour (26 June 2019). Speaking in Turkish, Ekrem İmamoğlu told Amanpour and the rest of the world that his victory on “June 23rd showed us that no one, no individual or power, can stand in the way of the will of the people, no politician has the luxury to ignore that fact.” Arguably, he was talking about the Prez or, at the very least, that is how Amapour took his words, presumably in conjunction with the majority of her global audience. In today’s polarised world, the figure of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become somewhat of a universal bogeyman – oftentimes appearing in a phrase also including Trump and Putin, as if constituting a veritable ‘unholy trinity of evil-doers.’ As a result, there are those who are now thinking that, come 2023, a CHP President could very well be taking up residency in the Beştepe Palace, Erdoğan’s White (or Ak, as in his preferred moniker for his party, the Ak Parti rather than AKP) Palace.

In fact, there appear to be some striking parallels between İmamoğlu and Erdoğan. Hinting at the distinct possibility that the first is being groomed to be Turkey’s new saviour, there is the fact that the latter’s rise to power was at the very least approved (if not, encouraged or even engineered) by Washington. Following the AKP’s victory in 2002, Tayyip Erdoğan became the country’s Prime Minister on 14 March 2003. But his ties to America stretch back to his days as Mayor of Istanbul (1994-98): “Erdogan had been in the U.S. on 17-25 April 1995; on 17-22 November 1996; on 20-23 December 1996; on 26 March 1998; on 26 July 2000; and on 4 July 2001 . . . and one last time, in February 2002,” as I wrote in 2014. In the same piece, I next posed the following query:

“Did the Clinton White House try to influence the course of Turkish politics by means of entertaining the self-professed proponent of the Sharia and was the Bush White House merely following the precedent set by its predecessor in grooming its champion of moderate Islam?”

Given the fact that Turkey’s current Absolute President no longer enjoys the West’s support as a member of the ‘unholy trinity of evil-doers,’ one could argue that İmamoğlu’s sudden arrival on the scene is all but fortuitous. Though the latter makes a big show of his love for Atatürk, his personal life and habits more than indicate that he could very easily function as a new champion of moderate Islam to replace the old but no longer ‘useful’ or even desired champion. And for that reason, the Prez’s words that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey” might prove very true in the long run. His initial stint as mayor of the city ushered in a 25-year period of AKP rule in Turkey’s biggest and most important city. The news agency Reuters‘ Orhan Çoşkun now even reports that some of Erdoğan’s stalwart allies have started abandoning ship: “Former allies of Turkey’s Erdogan plan rival party after Istanbul defeat.”

But for now, people are happy and opponents of the AKP regime rejoice, and nobody really knows what will happen next. Is this now really the beginning of the end or will the Prez bounce back and once again resume his place in the hearts and minds of the Turkish population?!??  Or, will İmamoğlu ever so gently replace him as the new face of an Islamic Turkey where the figure of Atatürk is once again revered, albeit re-reinterpreted?!??  As the first popularly elected President of the Republic, Tayyip Erdoğan set out to complete Mustafa Kemal’s accomplishments “by means of reviving the Turks’ ties to their Muslim creed and uniting all the ethnic groups and sub-groups living on Anatolian soil under the banner of Islam.” As illustrated at the outset, already as mayor of Beylikdüzü, İmamoğlu has undertaken steps to integrate the figure of Atatürk into the Turkish version of Islam. Perhaps this new approach to Republican history will lead the way to the future, as a time when a smiling and sympathetic yet pious and devout political leader that is no one else but Ekrem İmamoğlu will reintegrate Turkey into the world, as an indispensable part and parcel of the West and gateway to the East.

21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans. the greater Middle East, and the world beyond.. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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