Turkey’s soccer-obsessed president is engaging in a last-ditch effort to help his party hold on to power in Istanbul. Can Ekrem Imamoglu beat him at his own game?
Almost two weeks after Ekrem Imamoglu’s shock victory in Istanbul’s mayoral election in March, which he narrowly won by some 13,000 votes, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had still not conceded defeat. So Imamoglu turned to the power of Turkey’s soccer stadiums.
On April 13, he attended a match between the Istanbul clubs Besiktas and Basaksehir at Besiktas’s Vodafone Park. At halftime, some Besiktas fans began to chant “give the mandate to Imamoglu.” The stadium’s sound system was swiftly cranked up to drown out the chants, but Imamoglu basked in the acclaim. The following day, he attended another Istanbul derby, this time between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray (which, along with Besiktas, make up the “Big Three” teams of Turkish soccer, supported by the vast majority of Turkish people). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a self-confessed long-standing Fenerbahce fan, but some Fenerbahce fans outside the stadium chanted in support of Imamoglu.
Many fans of the Big Three Istanbul teams participated in the 2013 anti-government protests, and there is a sense that their stadiums still harbor a degree of latent anti-government sentiment. Imamoglu is making himself visible at games freighted with symbolic meaning. While courting the favor of the vast majority of Turkish soccer fans, he has also implicitly criticized Basaksehir, a recently founded club with close ties to the AKP government.
Imamoglu was finally given the mandate to govern Istanbul on April 17. But the AKP demanded a repeat of the election, citing irregularities, and in May the high election board made the controversial ruling to annul Imamoglu’s victory and ordered a rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election for June 23. Yet Imamoglu’s popularity has seemingly only continued to grow since then.
Soccer has played a crucial role in Imamoglu’s rapid rise in politics
, and attending the matches was a savvy, populist move that has played the AKP’s soccer-mad Erdogan at his own game and could help Imamoglu win again in this weekend’s election.
Any politician who has a grip on soccer in Turkey has a powerful weapon in his or her arsenal; soccer has been used by successful politicians since the 1950s, after the country’s transition to multiparty politics.
Soccer became part of Erdogan’s mythology as both man of the people and natural-born leader—a shortcut to people’s hearts and an easily understood language in a soccer-obsessed country. Erdogan is an ex-semiprofessional soccer player who captained IETT Spor, the team of the Istanbul transport authority, to victory in the Istanbul amateur championships in the 1970s.
Erdogan claims that Fenerbahce twice tried to sign him as a semiprofessional player but that he turned them down. He regularly uses soccer analogies, eagerly associates himself with the opening of new stadiums, wears soccer scarves on the campaign trail, and even scores spectacular goals at exhibition matches.
Imamoglu, 49, is a member of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has struggled electorally in Istanbul since the 1970s, partly because of its elitist reputation. The CHP has also traditionally held a distaste toward soccer. Government elites in the early republican era and leftist politicians in the succeeding periods regarded the game as an opiate of the masses. But Imamoglu has broken with this tradition and created his own populist soccer mythology.
Government elites in the early republican era and leftist politicians in the succeeding periods regarded the game as an opiate of the masses. But Imamoglu has broken with this tradition and created his own populist soccer mythology.
Like Erdogan, Imamoglu was also a semiprofessional player—he played for Turk Ocagi Limasol Sports Club in Northern Cyprus during his years at university—and has skillfully used soccer as a tool of rhetoric and populism, both to imitate Erdogan and to draw distinctions.
Imamoglu has said his childhood dream was to play for his hometown club of Trabzonspor—one of the biggest clubs in Turkey based in the eastern Black Sea city of Trabzon. In a 2016 interview with the club’s magazine, he spoke of how his father wanted to send him to one of Trabzon’s most prestigious, elitist private colleges but claimed he convinced him to instead send him to a state school famous for producing professional soccer players, including his hero, the legendary Trabzonspor goalkeeper Senol Gunes. Like Erdogan, Imamoglu also claims he turned down an opportunity to sign for a professional club (Akcaabat Sebatspor, a club in the Akcaabat district of Trabzon province) to pursue his education.
Erdogan portrays himself as having been a strong, dominant attacker on the field; his nickname was “Imam Beckenbauer,” a reference both to his piety and to his supposed likeness to the German legend Franz Beckenbauer. The implication is that he is similarly well-equipped to lead in Turkish politics.