Ekrem İmamoğlu, the main opposition candidate fighting for a second time to become mayor of Istanbul, has hit out at a “smear campaign” targeting his ethnicity.
Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK party’s candidate Binali Yıldırım have reportedly been suggesting that Mr İmamoğlu is of “secret” Greek heritage, with less than three weeks to go before the election on Sunday, 23 June.
The poll is a re-run of a vote that took place on 31 March, which Mr İmamoğlu, the candidate for the Republican Turkish Party (CHP), won from Mr Yıldırım – a former prime minister – by the narrowest of margins.
He was later stripped of his mayoral mandate, however, after Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board upheld a complaint from the AKP over election “irregularities”.
Some commentators see Mr İmamoğlu as a potential challenger to Mr Erdoğan in the country’s next presidential elections, scheduled to take place in 2023.
Questions over Mr İmamoğlu’s ethnicity appear to be based on the fact that he hails from a town in the Trabzon province of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, a region historically home to large numbers of Pontic Greeks.
The family of President Erdoğan, who was Istanbul Mayor in the 1990s, also comes from the same region, from the city of Rize.
There have been claims that the Greek media are backing Mr İmamoğlu, with one headline describing him as “The ‘Greek’ who ‘conquered’ Istanbul”.
Accusations previously made that Mr İmamoğlu, as the former mayor of the Istanbul district of Beylikdüzü, had “built a statue” of the late Greek Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios, have also resurfaced in some sections of the Turkish media.
He has persistently denied this, explaining that the image of Makarios forms part of a relief of a much larger monument to late Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus founding President Rauf Denktaş, the design of which he says had the approval of the Denktaş family.
President Erdoğan: “This is Istanbul, another of its names is Islam-bol, this place is not Constantinople”
Mr Erdoğan himself hinted at the claims over Mr İmamoğlu’s roots, telling a crowd in Istanbul last week that “this place is not Constantinople, but there are people who want to see here like that. We have 22 days against those who want to see this place like that”.
The tactics seemed to have backfired, however, when huge crowds turned out in favour of Mr İmamoğlu on a visit to Trabzon during this week’s Bayram holiday.
He was there to rally support from voters who had travelled from Istanbul to visit family in Trabzon for the religious break.
“We have a culture that respects 82 million citizens living in this country regardless of their ethnic origin,” he tweeted alongside a clip of a speech he gave at Trabzon.
“They cannot find anything else. They waste their time with Ekrem’s beliefs, with Ekrem’s ethnic identity,” he says in the video.
Biz, etnik kökeni ne olursa olsun bu ülkede yaşayan 82 milyon vatandaşa saygı duyan bir ahlaka ve kültüre sahibiz. Başka türlü düşünenlere Allah akıl, fikir versin. pic.twitter.com/X5xesxTHPL
— Ekrem İmamoğlu (@ekrem_imamoglu) 6 June 2019
“My brothers, everybody who lives in this city knows my family. You cannot insult someone over their ethnic identity.”
In separate comments quoted in a story by The Times, Mr İmamoğlu said: “If I were of Greek origin, I wouldn’t mind to say so.
“Same if I were of Armenian or Assyrian origin. Or any other national origin. It doesn’t make a difference.
“I find it shameful if politics is realised in terms of ethnicity or beliefs. I also condemn people who think they are degrading someone by calling them Greek.
“They are reducing themselves to new lows — bureaucrats, deputies, ministers irrationally attack me hoping it will make them rise to some kind of power.
“They are looking for constant polarisation and hostility in society. I’m trying to unite and reconcile.”
Burak Kadercan, an associate professor of strategy and policy at the US Naval War College, wrote on Twitter that the AKP’s attempts to undermine Mr İmamoğlu by claiming he was a “crypto-Greek/Christian agent” were a “big mistake”.
In doing so, the AKP had “inadvertently offended an entire region by implying that they might be crypto-Greek/Christians too”, he added.
Top photo: Ekrem İmamoğlu (left), Dec 2018 © Tan Çetin / VOA and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, cropped from original photo with President Petro Poroşenko in Ukraine, Nov. 2018 © Адміністрація Президента України Wikipedia / CC by 4.0