Recep Tayyip Erdogan Has Met His Match

Turkey’s soccer-obsessed president is engaging in a last-ditch effort to help his party hold on to power in Istanbul. Can Ekrem Imamoglu beat him at his own game?

Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayoral candidate for the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP),  gestures as he speaks during a rally ahead of local elections in Istanbul on March 29. The election, which Imamoglu won narrowly, is scheduled to be re-run on June 23.
Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayoral candidate for the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), gestures as he speaks during a rally ahead of local elections in Istanbul on March 29. The election, which Imamoglu won narrowly, is scheduled to be re-run on June 23. YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images

Almost two weeks after Ekrem Imamoglu’s shock victory in Istanbul’s mayoral election in March, which he narrowly won by some 13,000 votes, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had still not conceded defeat. So Imamoglu turned to the power of Turkey’s soccer stadiums.

On April 13, he attended a match between the Istanbul clubs Besiktas and Basaksehir at Besiktas’s Vodafone Park. At halftime, some Besiktas fans began to chant “give the mandate to Imamoglu.” The stadium’s sound system was swiftly cranked up to drown out the chants, but Imamoglu basked in the acclaim. The following day, he attended another Istanbul derby, this time between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray (which, along with Besiktas, make up the “Big Three” teams of Turkish soccer, supported by the vast majority of Turkish people). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a self-confessed long-standing Fenerbahce fan, but some Fenerbahce fans outside the stadium chanted in support of Imamoglu.

Many fans of the Big Three Istanbul teams participated in the 2013 anti-government protests, and there is a sense that their stadiums still harbor a degree of latent anti-government sentiment. Imamoglu is making himself visible at games freighted with symbolic meaning. While courting the favor of the vast majority of Turkish soccer fans, he has also implicitly criticized  Basaksehir, a recently founded club with close ties to the AKP government.

Imamoglu was finally given the mandate to govern Istanbul on April 17. But the AKP demanded a repeat of the election, citing irregularities, and in May the high election board made the controversial ruling to annul Imamoglu’s victory and ordered a rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election for June 23. Yet Imamoglu’s popularity has seemingly only continued to grow since then.

Soccer has played a crucial role in Imamoglu’s rapid rise in politics, and attending the matches was a savvy, populist move that has played the AKP’s soccer-mad Erdogan at his own game and could help Imamoglu win again in this weekend’s election.

Any politician who has a grip on soccer in Turkey has a powerful weapon in his or her arsenal; soccer has been used by successful politicians since the 1950s, after the country’s transition to multiparty politics.

Soccer became part of Erdogan’s mythology as both man of the people and natural-born leader—a shortcut to people’s hearts and an easily understood language in a soccer-obsessed country. Erdogan is an ex-semiprofessional soccer player who captained IETT Spor, the team of the Istanbul transport authority, to victory in the Istanbul amateur championships in the 1970s.

Erdogan claims that Fenerbahce twice tried to sign him as a semiprofessional player but that he turned them down. He regularly uses soccer analogies, eagerly associates himself with the opening of new stadiums, wears soccer scarves on the campaign trail, and even scores spectacular goals at exhibition matches.

Imamoglu, 49, is a member of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has struggled electorally in Istanbul since the 1970s, partly because of its elitist reputation. The CHP has also traditionally held a distaste toward soccer. Government elites in the early republican era and leftist politicians in the succeeding periods regarded the game as an opiate of the masses. But Imamoglu has broken with this tradition and created his own populist soccer mythology. Like Erdogan, Imamoglu was also a semiprofessional player—he played for Turk Ocagi Limasol Sports Club in Northern Cyprus during his years at university—and has skillfully used soccer as a tool of rhetoric and populism, both to imitate Erdogan and to draw distinctions.

Imamoglu has said his childhood dream was to play for his hometown club of Trabzonspor—one of the biggest clubs in Turkey based in the eastern Black Sea city of Trabzon. In a 2016 interview with the club’s magazine, he spoke of how his father wanted to send him to one of Trabzon’s most prestigious, elitist private colleges but claimed he convinced him to instead send him to a state school famous for producing professional soccer players, including his hero, the legendary Trabzonspor goalkeeper Senol Gunes. Like Erdogan, Imamoglu also claims he turned down an opportunity to sign for a professional club (Akcaabat Sebatspor, a club in the Akcaabat district of Trabzon province) to pursue his education.

Erdogan portrays himself as having been a strong, dominant attacker on the field; his nickname was “Imam Beckenbauer,” a reference both to his piety and to his supposed likeness to the German legend Franz Beckenbauer. The implication is that he is similarly well-equipped to lead in Turkish politics.

Imamoglu has also stressed his leadership credentials though soccer but from his perspective as a goalkeeper. In an interview with Hurriyet newspaper just before the election, Imamoglu said the goalkeeper’s vantage point allowed him to survey the whole pitch. “If your voice is strong, you direct the game with your voice. I was this kind of goalkeeper,” he said. It is also a hint that he may be the man to defend Turkish democracy against Erdogan’s relentless attacks. Not to be outdone by Erdogan when it comes to his faith, Imamoglu (whose surname means son of an imam) has also stressed his religious credentials by claiming in an election campaign video that featured numerous soccer-related photos that he never took his place in the goal without first reciting the besmele prayer.

Soccer is not only about rhetoric and myth-making in Turkey; it is also part of a vital network of power and prestige that links politics and big business.

But soccer is not only about rhetoric and myth-making in Turkey; it is also part of a vital network of power and prestige that links politics and big business. After university, Imamoglu joined his family’s construction company. He made a name for himself at Trabzonspor, even if it wasn’t on the field, after he became the youngest board member in the club’s history in 2001.

He joined the main opposition CHP in 2008, and in 2009 he became the president of the party’s district branch in the small western Istanbul neighborhood of Beylikduzu, where he was a long-standing resident and board member of the local soccer team Beylikduzuspor. His affiliations with soccer likely helped his rapid rise through the party, and he used the position as a springboard to become mayor of the district in 2014. His reputation as an effective and popular mayor in Beylikduzu led the CHP to choose him as its candidate for the Istanbul mayoral election in 2019.

When Imamoglu won a surprise victory in the March 31 Istanbul municipal election—by a margin of less than 0.2 percent—over the AKP’s candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the result seemingly ended 25 years of control by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors and was a personal blow to Erdogan, who rose to national prominence as Istanbul mayor in the 1990s.

In the uncertain weeks following the election, as Imamoglu waited for his mandate and the AKP demanded a rerun, he demonstrated that he was not cowed by the government. His decision to attend matches of the city’s biggest soccer teams after the election aimed to consolidate his legitimacy as mayor.

On April 20, Imamoglu also attended a match at Galatasaray’s stadium. On social media after, he posted a photo waving to fans and pledged support for “all the sports clubs of this city, especially our three major clubs.” He is also distancing himself from Erdogan, who now cannot appear at the matches of the Big Three teams for fear of being booed (as he was at the opening of Galatasaray’s new stadium in 2011).

So far the soccer strategy is working for Imamoglu. But, as Erdogan has seen, soccer is often the unruliest space in Turkey, and it contains pitfalls for those who try to harness its power. The pro-government Akit TV channel made a program that attempted to smear Imamoglu’s name by trying to link him and Trabzonspor to the banned Gulen movement—followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamist cleric living in exile in the United States. Gulen and Erdogan, erstwhile allies, are now sworn enemies with the government blaming the Gulen movement for orchestrating a failed military coup in 2016. Fenerbahce has claimed that a 2011 match fixing scandal—which largely accused the club of fixing matches at the expense of Trabzonspor and was led by prosecutors close to the Gulen movement—was a Gulenist conspiracy to take over the club. It has now become a common smear tactic in Turkey to link government critics to the Gulen movement, and Imamoglu vehemently denies any such connection.

The decision to annul Imamoglu’s March victory and repeat the election was decried by opposition supporters and criticized by many observers as an attack on the remaining vestiges of democracy in Turkey. But Imamoglu responded with a positive, uplifting speech in which he pledged to win again and sought to reassure voters. His slogan for the rerun election campaign—“Her sey cok guzel olacak” (Everything will be fine)—has been picked up by soccer fans and sung in the stadiums of Besiktas and Fenerbahce during the final weeks of the season.

Like Erdogan, Imamoglu has based his politics largely on persona over policies. While the economic crisis in Turkey likely pushed some voters away from the ruling AKP, and he benefited from an election pact among many of the main opposition parties, Imamoglu has also consistently struck a calm, conciliatory, and inclusive tone to reach out to conservative voters—a marked contrast to Erdogan’s often divisive and fiery rhetoric.

Soccer has helped Imamoglu, a largely unknown figure before the election campaigns, flesh out a political personality and to communicate skillfully with the public while also facilitating his rise through the establishment. Some are already speculating that he may run against Erdogan in the 2023 presidential election.

Few politicians have been able to compete with Erdogan over the past two decades in terms of populist credentials and charisma, and none has rivaled his use of soccer as a rhetorical tool, route to power, or a way to shape his personal mythology.

Imamoglu has saved all the shots fired at him over the past few weeks, and Erdogan and his party realize they are facing a wily and popular opponent. As he gets ready to face the most critical penalty kick of his career, Imamoglu will be hoping he can do just enough to edge out a victory in this most controversial of rematches.

Patrick Keddie is a journalist based in Istanbul and the author of The Passion: Football and the Story of Modern Turkey. Twitter: @PatrickKeddie

Sevecen Tunc is a sports author based in Istanbul. She holds a Ph.D. in modern Turkish history and has written extensively on the sociopolitical history of Turkish sports. Twitter: @sevecentnc

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola