İmamoğlu vs. Yıldırım: who are the two main candidates running for Istanbul Mayor?

Turkey is gearing up for Local Elections taking place next Sunday, 31 March 2019. As the biggest metropolis in Turkey, Istanbul carries huge significance among the 30 metropolitan municipalities whose council members will be decided in next week’s vote.

T-VINE compares the two main candidates running to become Istanbul Mayor: former Prime Minister and joint candidate for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) and MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) Binali Yıldırım and Ekrem İmamoğlu, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who is also backed by İyi (Good Party).

When I first heard of Ekrem  İmamoğlu, I was surprised how CHP went for someone who is relatively unknown among the public. He is the Mayor of Beylikdüzü, a district of Istanbul that is tidy, well-organised, clean and green compared to other parts of the city, including neighbour district Esenyurt.

İmamoğlu’s track record as a local council leader is a good indicator of what could be in store should he become mayor of the metropolis. However, major concerns exist, primarily because he of his lack of experience and that he is running against a well-known politician like Binali Yıldırım. Many CHP supporters would have preferred a candidate with a bigger profile, like Muharrem İnce. Yet having a low-profile could be to İmamoğlu’s advantage as his name is not sullied like İnce or other political personalities in opposition circles.

Who is Ekrem İmamoğlu?

So, who is Ekrem İmamoğlu? Hailing from the Black Sea region, the 49-year old incumbent Beylikdüzü Mayor started his career at his family’s construction company, where he went on to become the Chairman of its Board of Directors.

An amateur football player during school years, he has served as an executive at one of Turkey’s top four clubs, Trabzonspor Football Club, as well as at Trabzonspor Basketball Club and Beylikdüzüspor Club.  Could İmamoğlu follow in the footsteps of another Istanbul footballer mayor, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who served the city in 1994-1998?

İmamoğlu has been living in his beloved Beylikdüzü since 1991. He became CHP’s local party head for Beylikdüzü in 2009 and was elected as Mayor of Beylikdüzü Municipality at the last Local Elections on 30 March 2014. He claims on his website that he has, “played an active role in the social and cultural life of Beylikdüzü” and that, “İmamoğlu is a member of several nongovernmental organisations.”

Ekrem İmamoğlu, Beylikdüzü Council Leader & Istanbul Mayoral Candidate in 2019 Local Elections


Being fresh face  in national politics, İmamoğlu has been very active in trying to raise public awareness of his since his party announced him as their Mayoral Candidate for Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality in December 2018.

In an interview with Turkish news channel Haberturk, İmamoğlu said he ‘has a chance to introduce himself to the public’ and that he was confident ‘they will increasingly like him after getting to know him day-by-day’.

For the past three months, he has criss-crossed the city every day, meeting and talking to local people. He has also paid visits to other notable political figures, including former Istanbul Mayors Kadir Topbaş and President Erdoğan. And he has proved to be a savvy political operator in other ways.

Asked by a roving TV reporter about what he’d buy if he won the national lottery, Istanbul resident Bahattin Çağış said his own metrobus so “he could sit while travelling to work”. When the reporter probed further, he told her he had not been able to sit once on his daily travels to and from work for the past five years.


Sensing a good PR opportunity, İmamoğlu first tweeted the interview, writing “A little more patience my dear brethren. There’s just 93 days left”, topped with a winking emoji, in reference to the upcoming Local Elections. Five days later, İmamoğlu met Çağış on a relatively empty metrobus early on New Year’s Day – a public holiday in Turkey – where they were able to sit and talk about the city’s problems, chief among them transportation.


One of İmamoğlu’s big pledges is to solve Istanbul’s traffic and public transport problems, caused by the city’s ever-expanding population across the sprawling metropolis. He promises to extend the underground train lines and improve the network for metrobuses and minibuses. He is also on record in opposing Istanbul’s current gentrification and vertical architecture.

While he is exciting and drawing in some voters, others remain aloof to his charm and chances of victory. Some CHP voters have publicly aired that he cannot beat veteran politician Binali Yıldırım because he is a “no name” and the odds are stacked against him. Yıldırım’s party AKP and its predecessor Refah have ran Istanbul since 1994, and with the Local Elections taking place under Erdoğan’s presidency, where mass media bias rests with AKP, few believe this unfair contest will bring about change.

Many voters are also deeply unhappy with CHP and specifically leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for not challenging the outcomes of previous dubious results, especially the April 2017 presidential system referendum, which was plagued with numerous irregularities. Instead, CHP has ended up tolerating the outcomes, leaving them open to accusations that they have ‘legitimised an illegitimate regime’.

Moreover, leader Kılıçdaroğlu’s poor record at the polls, losing eight consecutive elections and still refusing to stand down as party leader or accepting a challenge to his authority, is deterring large swathes of CHP sympathisers from voting in the upcoming elections.

Could a voter backlash against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has refused to stand out despite losing 8 consecutive elections, cost İmamoğlu?

Kılıçdaroğlu shown here addressing a CHP Group meeting in the Turkish Parliament, 21 Nov. 2017. Photo © CHP


İmamoğlu’s PR campaign has also faced some criticism. CHP voters, primarily those who believe in secularism, are tired of seeing their candidates pander to conservative votes by posing with headscarved mums and showing up to Friday prayers in front of the cameras. These seem irrelevant to the election campaign and a shallow way to appeal Turkey’s pious community.

For all that, İmamoğlu still has the capability of creating one of the biggest election upsets of the past decade, which can explain how desperate pro-AKP commentators have been in trying to dig up dirt on him. The businessman has been accused of having links to shadowy cult group FETO (now deemed a terrorist organisation in Turkey), while others have presented İmamoğlu’s family as ‘shameless profiteers’. Even the Beylikdüzü Council Leader’s flawless record has come under fire, with opponents claiming he has only completed projects first started by his predecessors.

For those following Turkish elections, such accusations against political opponents appearing in pro-government media are now the norm.

Who is Binali Yıldırım?

It’s not all plain sailing for Binali Yıldırım though. His campaign got off to a bad start for failing to adhere to statutory regulations. When Erdoğan announced the ruling party’s mayoral candidate, Yıldırım was the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly. Turkey’s constitution prevents the Speaker from being involving in any political contests, and the expectation was he would resign.

Yıldırım initially refused, stating in January that he would resign if the other candidates resigned from their posts too. It seems the AKP politician was unaware of the fact that this constitutional requirement applies only to the Speaker of the Parliament, who should remain neutral and not active in party politics.

When Yıldırım, 64, finally resigned on 18 February, his reluctance led to Kılıçdaroğlu,  İYİ party leader Meral Akşener, and others asked whether his delay was due to his fears of losing in the mayoral elections and that ‘he did not want to be out of both jobs’.

He has good reason to fear. In the 2014 Local Elections, Yıldırım ran for Izmir Mayor but lost to the incumbent, CHP candidate Aziz Kocaoğlu.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan receives Turkey’s new PM and AKP colleague Binali Yıldırım, 22 May 16. Photo Reuters / Kayhan Ozer via TCCB


In truth, with years of political experience behind him, Yıldırım was a natural choice for AKP at these elections, demonstrating the importance of the city for the party.

From Erzincan and an engineer by profession, prior to being a Parliamentary Speaker, Yıldırım was AKP leader, and Turkey’s 27th and last Prime Minister. His office was abolished following the 2017 Constitutional Referendum, and his role in that left many feeling he was less his own man as PM, and more the low-profile AKP politician who did Erdoğan’s bidding.

Much of his working life since 1978 has been in maritime engineering, which Yıldırım studied at İstanbul Technical University. His past employers include Türkiye Gemi Sanayi and İstanbul Fast Ferries Company (İDO), where he was a director first and later chairman during a six-year stint between 1994-2000. His decision to embark on a political career came at the start of the new millennium.

One of the founders of AKP, Yıldırım became elected an MP for Istanbul in 2002. He gained ministerial experience in various posts including as the AKP Minister of Transport, and later Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communication in AKP’s different governments.

As Transport Minister, he has presided over prestigious projects such as the Marmaray, which offers a rail link between the two sides of Istanbul via an underground tunnel beneath the Bosphoros. He has also given the green light to high-speed rail lines and an expansion of the country’s airport and road infrastructure.

However, there were calls for his resignation following the tragic Pamukova train derailment in 2004, in which 41 people were killed and 80 injured. Yet Yıldırım refused to take any responsibility for the accident, stating, “I feel very comfortable. I wasn’t the one driving that train”.

Yıldırım’s personal and family finances have featured strongly in those criticising him in these elections. Previous reports state the Yıldırım family own 17 companies, 28 ships and 2 super-yachts. When asked in parliament about “30 ships”, Yıldırım confirmed his children’s ownership of  ships but didn’t reveal the number.

In January, Deutche Welle reporter Pelin Ünker was sentenced to 13 months in jail in Turkey over her report for a Turkish newspaper on the Paradise Papers investigation into offshore tax havens. An Istanbul court found her guilty of “defamation and insult” after penning an article alleging a link between Binali Yıldırım, an offshore account, and “revelations” regarding his and his sons’ alleged business activities.

Controversy also exists around his conservative life choices, including the need for sex segregation. Yıldırım revealed he didn’t apply for Turkey’s top university Boğaziçi because ‘young men and women were sitting together in the campus’ when he visited. He thought it would ‘make him walk the wrong path’, so he opted to study at ITU instead.

Both candidates have prioritised improving transport and town planning across the city, with AKP’s appeal less attractive given its 25-year political hold over Istanbul. We will see whether Istanbul’s destiny will change on 31 March.