Who will run for president, Mansur Yavaş or Ekrem İmamoğlu?

Ülkü Doğanay writes: It is not difficult to understand that Erdoğan and the ruling AKP do not like the possibility that Ekrem İmamoğlu might become the presidential candidate for the Nation Alliance. The government would prefer Muharrem İnce to be the opposition bloc's presidential candidate. The recent generous coverage of İnce by the pro-government media also mirrors this.

Ülkü Doğanay

In recent opinion polls, the name of Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş has stood out for a while as the joint candidate for the opposition when it comes to the presidency. In the latest survey by the polling company Area Research, among those who answered the question “Who would you vote for if there was a joint candidate for the opposition,” 42.5 percent chose Mansur Yavaş. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, who won local elections in Istanbul twice with a more than 800,000 vote difference between him and his opponent in the second vote, follows Yavaş. From the moment he became the mayor of Istanbul, İmamoğlu has been closely monitored step-by-step by pro-government media. Immediately after June 24, 2019, the repeat of the Istanbul elections, the word was that İmamoğlu would be the opposition’s candidate for the presidency and he would even head the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). 

İmamoğlu was not able to meet with President Erdoğan despite his numerous attempts to secure an appointment. He was seated on a broken chair at the Beştepe Presidential Palace when he was invited by the President together with other metropolitan mayors. He has not been invited to councils established on topics such as the earthquake, the pandemic or Kanal Istanbul. The funds the municipality raised to help the disadvantaged during the pandemic period were seized by the central government. Restricting the jurisdiction of municipalities, stopping them from taking loans and, in general, preventing municipalities from serving the people have all been done up until this point. From now on, several other things are planned under the label of “local government reforms.” These are signs that the government considers the CHP municipalities to be real threats for their continuity. Beyond all these events, it is not difficult to understand that Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) do not like the possibility that İmamoğlu might become the presidential candidate for the Nation Alliance.      

Before all else, İmamoğlu has a political style that is tranquil, restrained, avoidant of arguments, ready to embrace people of all political views and at the same time, ready to talk and persuade people. It is exactly the opposite of the political style of Erdoğan, who has entered and won six consecutive elections up until now if you count the 1994 local elections. Erdoğan’s style is based on elevating emotions, despising his opponents, polarizing, and persuading the electorate to vote for him by spreading fear. Another advantage of İmamoğlu going against Erdoğan is that, at age 50, he can be considered young as compared to the profile of the average politician in Turkey; moreover, he looks much younger than his age. This is a significant advantage in terms of establishing a dialogue, especially with the youth electorate. The 16-year-old Berkay, who rewarded the opposition with his slogan “Everything will be much better,” will be able to vote for the first time in the next elections, unless snap elections are held early. 

Muharrem İnce, the 2018 opposition presidential candidate against Erdoğan, tried to adopt a similar strategy based on a constructive language of avoiding arguments and emphasizing shared democratic values. At the end of the 50-day campaign, Muharrem İnce was a different person. All throughout the campaign period, he became a person who easily lost his temper and restraint. Thus, he handed over the power to set the agenda of election rallies again to Erdoğan. When one looks back today, it is not too difficult to see that the sentimental collapse İnce suffered on election night approached step by step.      

Exactly for this reason, the government would prefer Muharrem İnce to be the presidential candidate, even though he is extremely irritated by this approach and mentions it at every opportunity. The recent generous coverage of İnce by the pro-government media also mirrors this. So much so that his “The Country in 1000 Days Movement” he believes will carry him to being a candidate for the presidency, and even to the presidency itself, is being covered by the government media through live transmissions — the same media that does not have any positive coverage of İmamoğlu at all. It would not be wrong to expect this media attention to continue for Muharrem İnce as of September 4 when he starts his tour from the central Anatolian province of Sivas.  

On the other hand, the Area poll shows that the support Muharrem İnce enjoys from the opposition block is at the same level as that of ex-president Abdullah Gül. The latter was debated as the possible joint candidate for the opposition since 2018, but was given up when İYİ Party leader Meral Akşener objected. On the other hand, Abdullah Gül lacked any assurance for the opposition electorate as to whether or not his run would be similar to that of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu’s if Gül were to be the Nation Alliance candidate; when İhsanoğlu was brought forward as a candidate in 2014, he was largely unknown the public. In fact, we do not even know whether Gül would want to be a presidential candidate. It would be an easy guess that Gül’s candidacy would anger Erdoğan and the AKP; however, it is not known yet what kind of a contribution his candidacy would make to the opposition block or whether or not he would be able to carry the dissidents inside the AKP to a position against Erdoğan or to being an opponent of Erdoğan. Most importantly, nobody knows what kind of a reaction his candidacy would draw from the CHP electorate, who have not yet overcome the “Ekmeleddin for Bread” trauma, a highly unsuccessful slogan of the 2014 elections.   

On the other side of all these debates is Mansur Yavaş, who does not like to appear in front of cameras, who does not speak to the press and who does not see himself as a responder of any question regarding his candidacy for presidency. Despite this, his popularity is ever increasing in the eyes of the public according to the Area poll.   

Mansur Yavaş became the mayor of Ankara, a city that has been battered by the ex-mayor Melih Gökçek for a quarter of a century, a city which was in disarray. The image Mansur Yavaş has adopted as a “supra-political” person, just doing his job better, has almost made him the secret actor and hero of the restoration period. This period is expected to reestablish norms of the rule of law, basic democratic values, and separation of powers, which the opposition has called a “strengthened parliamentary system.” When he speaks as the Mayor of Ankara, he says, “We are spending your money and we are civil servants. Don’t be astonished by the huge titles given to us. We are no different than the ordinary employee. You are paying our salaries. All the work we are doing for the city is paid by you.”   

Mansur Yavaş is presenting a different method of management against AKP rule, which is almost in its 19th year and consists of boastful statements like, “We built all these roads and bridges, we found natural gas, we did it all.” His words are also very much in contrast with the easiness of “We have managed it, we have won it, we will spend it.” He reiterates that administrators are also civil servants, that they are accountable to the people. He shows that that if there is a presidential position needed, just like the mayor of a city, the president is required to represent, not a certain clique, political view, party or belief, but the people as a whole. The public’s choice of Mansur Yavaş actually shows us how high the expectation is in this regard.

When it gets closer to election time, we do not know whether Mansur Yavaş’s political past and words during the election campaign such as “HDP, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, members should also be included in society,” will hinder his chances of being the joint candidate for the opposition. The Ankara electorate, when Yavaş was made the mayoral candidate, once had to grin and bear it. We cannot say they have yet been sorry about that. Let us see whether the Nation Alliance will succeed in uniting under a joint candidate and whether the electorate will be willing, once again, to grin and bear it.