Only one man in Turkey has rivalled Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for laudatory press coverage in recent months: the president’s candidate to reclaim Istanbul from its opposition mayor.

Once a relatively low-key urbanisation minister, Murat Kurum has become a star fixture of government-friendly media in the run-up to local elections this Sunday.

From parading with pop stars to holding a singalong with elderly nursing home residents, Kurum’s campaign has been followed with breathless enthusiasm.

Meanwhile Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, the opposition’s most important leader and arch-rival to Erdoğan, has mostly appeared as the butt of criticism.

It is a contrast that highlights the importance Erdoğan, Turkey’s most pre-eminent leader since its founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, has placed on the battle to take back Istanbul, one of the country’s last holdouts to his authority.

Home to 15.7mn people, or about a fifth of Turkey’s population, the city carries similarly high stakes for the opposition after its bitter defeat against Erdoğan in May’s presidential vote. For those concerned about Erdoğan’s journey towards autocracy, the municipal elections, featuring thousands of mayoral and council assembly races across 81 provinces, are one of the few checks left on his power.

“The race is even more critical than the May election,” said Atilla Yeşilada, an Istanbul-based analyst at the consultancy GlobalSource Partners.

Mao of Turkey, showing Istanbul and the capital Ankara

Istanbul was the cradle of Erdoğan’s political career. He was born in the city in 1954, played semi-professional football there in the 1970s and was propelled into the national spotlight when he swept into office as metropolitan mayor in 1994.

Erdoğan’s brand of Islamist-rooted politics has also shaped the former Ottoman capital. His term as mayor abruptly ended in 1998 when Turkey’s secular state jailed him for reciting a poem that said “the minarets are our bayonets”; just over two decades later, Erdoğan had ordered Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia to be turned into a mosque.

Kurum, 47, is on the ballot in the 2024 Istanbul campaign. But to many voters it is in practice a rematch between Erdoğan and İmamoğlu, who unexpectedly seized the city from the president’s Justice and Development party (AKP) in 2019.

It was the single biggest electoral setback for Erdoğan since his rise to national power in the early 2000s. His AKP was so stung by defeat it lodged claims of voter fraud against İmamoğlu, 53 — only to be beaten again in a highly contentious rerun of the vote.

“The real rival to Erdoğan is İmamoğlu,” said Murat Somer, a political-science professor at Istanbul’s Özyeğin University. He added that İmamoğlu was the only politician who “has been able to defeat Erdoğan three times”, pointing to the two votes in Istanbul in 2019 and a 2014 race in which he seized control of a previously AKP-held Istanbul district.

Criminal cases lodged against İmamoğlu, which have been criticised by international observers, were a further sign of how Erdoğan views the Istanbul mayor as “the most promising candidate for change”, Somer said.

People stand next to an electoral poster in Istanbul displaying Republican People’s party candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu
People stand next to an electoral poster in Istanbul displaying Republican People’s party candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu. He is pivotal to the opposition to Erdoğan, being one of few politicians able to reach beyond his party’s secular base of voters © Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images

If Erdoğan emerges victorious in the March election, it would deal a heavy blow to the country’s beleaguered opposition. İmamoğlu’s Republican People’s party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition group, has been shaken since its May 2023 defeat by internal divisions.

At the same time the broader six-party alliance, formed for the May presidential vote, has broken down with several opposition parties fielding their own candidates in races across Turkey.

“This is a make or break election for the opposition parties, which are already in disarray,” said Berk Esen, a professor at Istanbul’s Sabanci university. “If they lose Istanbul they will be in a tough position.”

A senior Istanbul-based CHP politician who asked not to be named put it more bluntly: “People will lose hope [if İmamoğlu loses] . . . the opposition will no longer have the power to stand in Erdoğan’s way,” he warned.

Osman Nuri Kabaktepe, chair of the AKP’s Istanbul branch, added that Istanbul serves “as a window on to the rest of the country”, whether it is “culture, business, sports or the economy”.

İmamoğlu, a charismatic campaigner, is pivotal to the opposition because he is one of few politicians able to reach beyond the CHP’s secular base of voters. Among İmamoğlu’s pledges are a campaign to bring the Olympic Games to Istanbul, funding for technology entrepreneurs and the arts and opening dozens of parks.

He has also promised to rehabilitate 110,000 at-risk homes and build 20,000 units for low-income housing to prepare for a major earthquake seismologists say is all but inevitable in Istanbul — an issue that has taken on increased relevance after last February’s devastating earthquake in the south of the country.

A local election campaign poster of Istanbul mayoral candidate Murat Kurum of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP)
A local election campaign poster of Istanbul mayoral candidate Murat Kurum of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party. He has pledged to build 600,000 homes © Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE

Kurum, who was previously best known in Turkey for his role in the government’s sometimes faltering earthquake response, has accused İmamoğlu of “deception” for failing to make Istanbul “disaster-resistant”; he has pledged to build 600,000 homes, about half of the city’s at-risk housing stock.

Both candidates have also campaigned on creating better roadworks and public transportation in a city where severe traffic is a perennial issue.

Polls generally show İmamoğlu in pole position ahead of Sunday’s vote, but the scale of his lead varies widely. A March survey by Metropoll put him ahead by almost 10 percentage points with 39.5 per cent of the vote, but a private poll seen by the Financial Times gives the Istanbul mayor only a three-point lead.

The race as it stands was “too close to call”, Esen said.

Much will depend on whether voters backing candidates from smaller parties — including the pro-Kurdish DEM party, nationalist İyi party, and Islamist New Welfare party — vote instead for Kurum or İmamoğlu, according to Can Selçuki at Istanbul Economics Research.

The outcome in Istanbul, a vast city at the centre of a province that accounts for 30 per cent of Turkey’s economic output, will also have wide-ranging practical implications. Whoever wins will be in control of a municipal powerhouse with more than 40,000 employees and an annual budget of about TL516bn ($16bn), based on public disclosures that include Istanbul’s subsidiary corporations.

“The Istanbul municipal government has really huge resources,” Esen said, noting that controlling the city allows you to “access to millions of voters”.

Additional reporting by Funja Güler in Ankara

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