From the moment that he ordered the annulment of Ekrem Imamoglu’s election as mayor of Istanbul, it was clear that Recep Tayyip Erdogan would stop at nothing to get his own candidate to win the repeat vote. As it appears increasingly likely that defeat this Sunday will be even worse than that of March 31, the Turkish president and leaders of his AK Party have resorted to accusing Imamoglu of a lack of patriotism, suggesting that he may even be Greek.
“Who were most happy with the elections of March 31? The Greeks. Do you remember the front pages of Greek newspapers saying that ‘a Greek conquered the City’?” Erdogan declared this week, after lying low for most of the campaign. A few weeks earlier, the news site Al-Monitor reported the AKP’s deputy chairman, Nurettin Canikli, saying: “The Greeks are saying Ekrem Imamoglu is Greek. There are many questions and doubts. You should prove that your spirit, heart and mind are with the Turkish nation.”
The innuendo is based on the fact that Imamoglu hails from the Black Sea region, which the Greeks call Pontos, and supports a vision of Turkey where ethnic differences do not matter.
“Irrespective of their ethnic roots, we respect the 82 million citizens of this country,” he said recently at a rally at Trabzon. The crowd, many of whom vote in Istanbul, gave him a rapturous welcome, clearly annoyed by the suggestion that their place of birth made them “Crypto-Greeks.” Erdogan himself comes from the same region.
“If I were of Greek origin, I wouldn’t mind saying so,” Imamoglu told the London Times. He added that the same would apply if he were of Armenian or any other ethnic origin. Notably, his candidacy was backed by Turkey’s Kurds in March and still is. This suggests that Erdogan’s tactical mistake in annulling the March election could result in a strategic defeat: Because it was his decision, he will be the sole owner of a more damaging defeat if his candidate loses again; it will show that division as a tactic is not always invincible, even in a country with Turkey’s harsh past.
Whatever Greek newspapers may write, whatever is said in coffee shops on both sides of the border, it is Turkish voters who picked Imamoglu on March 31 and may do so again on June 23. Erdogan’s authoritarianism, his aggression and his unpredictability hurt the Turks more than anyone else. They undermine the country’s potential. They force many to leave. The bitter truth that Erdogan must swallow has been served by his own people.