As the first politician to have defeated the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the race for the Municipality of Istanbul in 2019, Ekrem Imamoglu is possibly the most debated opposition figure in Turkey. The head of the Good Party (IP), Meral Aksener, recently likened him to Mehmed the Conqueror, sparking controversy. When asked whether he will run for the country’s presidency, he does not answer, but notes, meaningfully, that the fact journalists and media close to the president are having daily discussions about a presidential candidate when there is such a long time to go before the elections, is an admission that there is a governance problem in the country.
Speaking to Kathimerini, Imamoglu cites the example of the rapprochement efforts of former Greek and Turkish foreign ministers George Papandreou and Ismail Cem in the early 2000s to underline that a healthy and peaceful relationship between Greece and Turkey is attainable and says it is “our duty” to continue this process with mutual diplomatic initiatives and strong relations covering all spheres of life.
The 51-year-old mayor of Turkey’s largest city talks about the problems he faces with the Turkish government, the municipality’s cheap bread campaign and addresses rumors of a run for the presidency. Imamoglu is due to visit Athens today in what will be his first trip to the Greek capital.
What is the purpose of your visit to Athens?
I will be visiting Athens for the first time and it was among the cities I wanted to see. I hope this first trip will create nice opportunities and narrow the gap of my not visiting until now. The mayor of Athens, Kostas Bakoyannis, and I were together during his visit to Istanbul, this time we will be together in Athens. We can regard this visit as a strong communication between Istanbul and Athens, since diplomacy between cities contributes significantly to diplomacy between countries. Modern democracy gives cities great power and responsibility, based on international peace. Both of us as mayors are acting with this awareness.
How do you see the future of your country’s relations with Greece?
In many areas, Turkey and Greece share a common culture, a common past and a common history. These common values should bring coexistence to the forefront, despite the problems. With this awareness, the goal of maintaining friendship and a peace process initiated by Kemal Ataturk and Eleftherios Venizelos should always be pursued, even if, at times, it goes through challenging periods. The unforgettable dialogue established between our foreign minister, the late Ismail Cem, and George Papandreou in the recent past also revealed that a healthy and peaceful relationship is achievable. It is our duty to continue this process with mutual diplomacy and strong relations covering all aspects of life.
As mayors of the largest cities of the two countries, what do you think can be done to bring the peoples closer together?
Regionally, we face common problems such as excessive migration and global warming. The two neighboring countries must always maintain open channels of dialogue in the face of such problems. By approaching problems rationally, we can brighten our future by working together.
I would like to reiterate that the two countries are already culturally close to each other. See, the legendary Greek composer and musician of the world, Mikis Theodorakis, who passed away at the beginning of this month and whom we remember with great respect and gratitude, set foot in Turkey for the first time in Istanbul. The relationship he established with our country’s treasured artist Zulfu Livaneli left a historic memory in our city. Their friendship lasted for 40 years. I believe that we, as mayors of Istanbul and Athens, keeping this example alive, will develop valuable partnerships that will last for many years.
Do you think Greece can play a role in bringing Turkey closer to the European Union?
I am a mayor who believes that the goal of the EU is vital for Turkey. From this point of view, I would like to have the greatest contribution to any of my country’s progress. Greece, on the other hand, seized this opportunity years ago and had important development. The EU stands for spreading the values of prosperity, peace and democracy. I believe that Turkey could make an important contribution to this Union. The realization of the accession objective will also help all the member countries, especially neighboring Greece. Therefore, it would be beneficial for Greece to give priority to Turkey’s prospects rather than its problems. This benefit will make our region stronger and more peaceful. What could be more important than that?
You often talk about the migration problem. What is the situation in Istanbul and how are you dealing with it?
Istanbul has become the metropolis that hosts the most refugees in the world. We are running an ancient city that hosts legal and irregular migrants and refugees of different profiles. According to our data we are facing a number of 1.6 million – maybe even more than 2 million, including the undocumented ones. It is not possible to serve such an irregular migratory volume with the resources of one city and one municipality alone. And everyone living in the city pays the price for that burden. As Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, despite the difficulties, we have made it part of our core policy to provide conditions for development and peaceful coexistence. After we took office, we established the migration unit, we focused on collecting data because we know its value in this area, and we created the “Istanbul Migration Survey” report.
With the cooperation and support of the UNHCR, we also carried out strong collaborations in this field. During the pandemic we provided important health and hygiene services to migrants. We are still doing a lot of work, but I believe that, at the soonest possible, peace will be restored in the countries of the migrants we are hosting, so that they can go back in peace and safety.
You accuse the government of putting obstacles in the way of the Municipality of Istanbul. In a recent speech you addressed the presidency and the ministries and said, “If you victimize the Istanbulite, then the Istanbulite will not recognize you.” What kind of problems are you facing? How are your contacts and relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?
I run the biggest city in Turkey. Therefore, we should maintain the closest relationship with all state institutions and find solutions to problems around a common table. I try to establish these conditions at every opportunity. I leave it to the discretion of the people whether there is enough response or not. Since our election we have experienced some actions against us, such as reduction of powers, cutting off resources, transfer of assets to other public institutions. However, despite all this, we have managed to continue our work without interruption.
We have achieved great things in Istanbul in 27 months, we have provided very good services. Let me say that we continue to express our request to cooperate with all government and state institutions in every field. Sometimes this is met and sometimes not. Our president is also our head of state. I have expressed this position, in the context of respect and courtesy, in every meeting with him. Yes, when it comes to serving Istanbul and 16 million Istanbulites, I will gladly talk with our president and every state official, I will go wherever I am called upon, and I will be honored to provide a joint service to this city and to this country.
You are increasing the production of Halk Ekmek (“people’s bread”), which is cheaper than regular bread, with new factories. You have often mentioned the increase in Halk Ekmek sales. How difficult are the people’s lives in terms of cost of living?
Halk Ekmek Istanbul is an important municipality enterprise, which was established in the 1970s as a concrete example of the social municipality approach. The purpose of its establishment was to prevent a price monopoly in the market, to ensure that the public had access to healthy bread at the most reasonable cost. Halk Ekmek is still ensuring this function. In times of increased economic hardship, the demand for our products, which sell at almost half the market price, is higher.
Halk Ekmek can meet people’s basic food needs in times of crisis. This is the foundation of the social municipality concept. With this company we demonstrate our understanding and determination for a fair municipality that solves people’s problems and makes life cheaper. We will start operating one of the largest production facilities in Europe under one roof, our fourth plant, in early 2022. With this new facility we will increase production to 2 million loaves per day.
Compared to today, how do you imagine the future of Turkey?
I trust my country, its people. I trust the young generation, producers, women and experienced people. I have very big dreams for them. My dream of a Turkey that increases prosperity, develops democracy, increases production and uses the full potential of technology is based on solid foundations. It will not take long for this to happen. Turkey is the most dynamic country in the world. Under the governance of the “Nation Alliance” [the opposition alliance] we will witness together how Turkey will achieve the great change.
It is an issue that is much discussed in Turkey. Would you like to run for president in the 2023 elections?
My plans are all about providing the best, fairest and most equitable service to Istanbul, to my 16 million fellow citizens. To provide exemplary service to my city and my country in every field. To govern Istanbul with common sense and to be the most successful and democratic mayor of Istanbul. The Turkish media, which is close to the government, already likes to bring up this issue. Let’s not bother Greece with these vain discussions. But I can’t help saying this. The fact that journalists and media close to the president are having daily discussions about a presidential candidate when there is a long time to go before the elections, is actually their own admission that there is a governance problem in the country.
How do you feel about winning the elections for the Istanbul mayoralty from a party system that had been in control of the municipality since 1994? How did you achieve this?
First of all, I attach great importance to these elections because they are an important democratic success and I am very happy that the will of the people was expressed in our favor. As you said, showing our difference from a 25-year-old administration, we said that we would run this ancient city on the basis of value and providing equal services to all. We promised to work day and night with all my friends for a green, fair and creative Istanbul. Besides, on March 31, 2019, we won the elections. However, those who could not stomach the people’s will and those who ignored it canceled the elections. We did not give up, we never walked away, and instead we showed a strong will together with our fellow citizens. On the same day we started again, everyone involved in the Nation Alliance, especially my own party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good Party. We have created a strong partnership with 16 million Istanbulites.
As a result, our people achieved an unprecedented success. I was elected mayor of Istanbul for the second time in three months, increasing the vote margin from 13,000 to 806,000, compared to March 31. This great success of democracy was not only Istanbul’s success, but also Turkey’s success.