Newly-elected Mayor to Look into Erdogan Party’s Use of Public Funds
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu speaks to the press on June 29, ahead of a meeting with other politicians and supporters in the city. (Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Newly-elected Mayor to Look into Erdogan Party’s Use of Public Funds

Ekrem Imamoglu promises Istanbul’s records will be audited although Turkish president could limit local powers in order to thwart his agenda 

The new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, says a top priority for him will be to inspect whether public funds were misused while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party, the AKP, controlled the country’s largest city for over two decades.

Imamoglu, a member of Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), told foreign journalists on Friday during his first full day as mayor that his office would hire domestic and international auditing companies to look at five to 10 years of public records.

“If we find anything, we will of course communicate this with the public,” Imamoglu said.

Yusuf Sarfati, an associate professor of comparative politics at Illinois State University and originally from Istanbul, said one of Imamoglu’s top priorities will be to take on the patronage system.

“I think the [biggest] campaign promise that appealed to people was his emphasis to make the government or municipality more transparent,” Sarfati told The Media Line. “That will be something to watch in the future, but I imagine there will be quite a political battle between him and the AKP.”

The biggest foreign media outlets gathered to hear from the mayor at the Friday press conference, another sign of the high profile he has garnered from his shock victory.

Imamoglu won the mayorship last week, being given almost 800,000 more votes than his AKP opponent, former prime minister Binali Yildirim, a close ally of the president. It was an embarrassing loss for Erdogan, who pushed for a rerun of the March 31 mayoral race after Imamoglu bested Yildirim by just 13,000 votes.

That victory was especially surprising considering Turkey’s political and media environment, in which political opponents have been jailed and news outlets are mostly pro-government, giving little coverage to the opposition.

The nullification of the results of the first vote gave Imamoglu even more attention and illustrated how valuable Istanbul is to Erdogan. The Turkish president, who started his political career in the city and served as mayor, said: “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.”

The mayor will control a nearly $4 billion annual budget for the city of 15 million. However, there are questions about the freedom Imamoglu will have to implement his agenda and whether Erdogan will seek to limit the powers of mayors, especially since both Istanbul and the capital Ankara are both now in the hands of the opposition.

The municipality is already limited in some ways. The Governorate of Istanbul banned the Istanbul Pride Parade, which was supposed to be held on Sunday, although Imamoglu favored it taking place.

In addition, the municipal council, on which the AKP holds a majority, will limit the mayor’s power – when Imamoglu briefly served after the March 31 election win, councillors barred many of his attempts to set policy.

“We saw on even very basic motions, the AKP majority has… gone against Imamoglu. I suspect some of this will continue,” Sarfati said.

Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College CUNY who focuses on Turkey and was in Istanbul for the election, agreed that the Turkish president would likely find a way to clamp down on Imamoglu’s powers.

“There is a worry that the government and Erdogan himself can make this process difficult…. [The question is] how much the government is willing to push [and] how much Imamoglu is willing to push back,” Fishman told The Media Line.

“If the government goes too far, the people are watching…. They’re walking on a tightrope right now,” he said.

Erdogan risks a further backfire if he angers Istanbul’s residents with attacks on Imamoglu and his attempts to reform the local government. Much of the wider margin in Imamoglu’s second win was likely due to voters’ disapproval over the cancellation of the initial vote.

Voters could express their discontent in an early presidential election. The major defeat in Istanbul has led to speculation that an election could be called earlier than scheduled, which is 2023.

While Imamoglu has not said he would take part in that race, his two victories and appeal across the political spectrum have many expecting that he will be a future contender.

Fishman suspects a vote could be called in the next year or two, in which Imamoglu’s image of a hard-working, positive politician could pay off. He feels that Imamoglu will focus on local politics, at least for now, but when he decides to voice his opinion against Erdogan, people will pay attention.

“Small words are going to go very far,” Fishman said. “It will transform politics. This was a referendum on Erdogan.”

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