Turkey’s opposition has just achieved its most significant victory since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. And it was a victory for the most successful political branding strategy since Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s own anti-elite, “poor boy made good” campaigning frame which launched him and his party into power in 2002 and has helped him hold on since – until now.
Not only did the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu win the race for mayor of Istanbul, a highly influential position, but he also managed to defeat Erdogan’s own nominee, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. Indeed, this was the second time Imamoglu won the race. His initial victory on 31 March was annulled by the Supreme Electoral Council in the wake of immense governmental pressure.
Imamoglu won despite Yildirim benefitting from the resources of the state, as well as having the support of the president, who personally campaigned on his behalf. Yildirim enjoyed overwhelmingly favorable campaign coverage in the country’s print and broadcast media and an abundance of unchecked campaign financing. Still, he lost.
The elections came while Turkey’s economy faces a significant downturn. Internationally, Turkey is looking increasingly isolated, and, on a local level, people are fed up with wasteful municipal spending.
However, the main reason for Imamoglu’s success was his ability to channel the discontent of AKP voters into support for his candidacy, while also maintaining a strong rapport with his secular middle-class support base, as well as Kurdish voters.
He did this by building a brand, articulated through a narrative.
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Corporations and start-ups know about branding and story-telling all too well. Ask any branding guru and they will tell you that a good narrative creates a relationship between company and consumer. The same holds true between politicians and voters. A successful politician is somebody who can connect with the electorate by creating a brand, articulated through a personal story. By electing the candidate, the voter has an opportunity to become part of the story.
The central narrative of Imamoglu is that of an intelligent and polite everyday man whose success as mayor of the Istanbul suburb of Beylikduzu spurred him on to run for mayor of Istanbul the first time the elections were run at the end of March. Despite being the underdog, he ran a tireless campaign which stressed inclusivity for Istanbul’s different demographic groups and efficiency in municipal services.
Against the odds, he managed to win, only to have his victory snatched away after being in office for just 17 days. Addressing the electorate after the election annulment, he minted a succinct, positive and confident slogan: “Her şey çok güzel olacak”, meaning “Everything is going to be alright.”
This slogan went viral almost immediately, together with a simplified graphic featuring his portrait, and together with Imamoglu’s personal narrative was captured in campaign literature, leaflets, posters, rallies, public statements and even a live televised debate. All this together worked towards creating a brand which offered hope (in Turkish, umut, also a key word in his campaigning lexicon) in a manner reminiscent of Barack Obama in 2008.
Once the brand was in place, Imamoglu managed to shield himself from the slurs and negative campaigns of the ruling party, President Erdogan included.
Accusations that Imamoglu was a “secret Greek” in terms of his family origins had no effect. Nor did claims that Imamoglu was close to members of the Gulen movement, followers of the self-exiled Fethullah Gulen, prime suspect in the 2016 attempted military coup, or accusations that he was receiving support from militant Kurds.
Not even Yildirim’s promises of free Wifi or free parking could prevent Imamoglu’s victory, nor could President Erdogan’s attempt to split Kurdish support for Imamoglu.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP know only too well the significance of Imamoglu and his brand identity. It was through successful brand narratives that the AKP and Erdogan were propelled to success in 2002 and after.
The narrative of the AKP, for example, was that of reformed Islamists who embraced democracy and the market economy in order to turn the country into a vibrant, innovative and modern economy, yet not lose sight of its traditional culture.
The brand story of Erdogan is the boy from the rough side of Istanbul’s streets who climbed up to become the city’s mayor, only to be unfairly imprisoned in 1999 for reciting a poem. A religious man with a pious education, Erdogan is the man that “they,” the traditional secular elite, could not prevent from rising up to the highest positions of power to rectify past injustices, while fighting for the prosperity of the Turkish nation, both at home and abroad.
There will not be another election in Turkey for perhaps another four years; however, between now and then the government will do everything in its power to destroy Brand Imamoglu.
They will attempt to delegitimize his connections and associates, find faults in his personal life and even portray him as a traitor. Meanwhile, they will try to cripple his municipal funding and make basic governance a chore. Indeed, Erdogan and the AKP still hold 25 of Istanbul’s 39 district mayors and command a majority within the municipal assembly. This will make life difficult for Imamoglu as the opposition’s recently-elected mayor in the capital, Ankara, has already experienced.
The challenge for Imamoglu in the months and years ahead is to rise above a sustained post-election dirty tricks campaign, run an effective office and maintain - and even build on - his brand narrative.
In other words, he has his work cut out. But if successful, Imamoglu will gain even more followers, which could become a critical mass enabling him to pose a real challenge to Erdogan’s political order four years down the line.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of “The New Turkey and Its Discontents” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1