For the past 25 years, Istanbul has been ruled by political forces in the same mold as Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). When I entered the mayoral race last year, I faced an experienced political opponent who was widely known, thanks to his roles as a former minister, leader of parliament and prime minister. Yet, I set out with the belief that I would win the election by engaging people directly, no matter what their ideology, and thus demonstrating that diversity can be a strength, not a weakness.
As mayor of Beylikduzu (a district of Istanbul where different cultures of Turkey merge), I have learned that it is possible to overcome the barriers of distrust and hostility that are created by the politics of fear. Focusing on good city management and my role as a responsive local official was vital.
Anyone who chooses to run for office in Turkey today must cope with an atmosphere of extreme polarization. I decided that I would rise to the challenge by presenting myself directly to the voters — a formidable challenge in a city of 15 million people. Yet, I was determined to follow through on my plan. Demonstrating my love and respect for the people of Istanbul became the foundation of my campaign.
Why? Because I concluded that such an approach is a crucial remedy to polarization and authoritarian populism.
The ruling AKP dominates the media landscape in our country, making it extremely difficult for anyone opposed to the party to break through. Such an environment dictates a people-first focus. Only in this way, I reasoned, could I have any hope of leveling the electoral playing field. So I set out to meet as many people as I could, from all political and cultural backgrounds. As I conducted one-on-one dialogue with citizens, my campaign turned these real conversations into video clips that we spread through social media. In doing, I wanted to put my democratic convictions to the test — for we can only change Istanbul for the better by listening to each other and by acting together. These videos, which were often circulated live, attracted great public interest and gave me a chance to communicate with voters despite the biased media environment of Turkey.
The most direct and easiest way to find the pulse of a city is by walking its avenues and streets. This is one of my favorite things to do, and it became the main communications medium of my campaign. I walked huge distances during the campaign, building trust among communities that have been politically marginalized for decades by meeting them where they are — in cafes, parks and playgrounds, on their way to work, school and mosques.
In today’s Turkey, any politician who listens to ordinary people candidly quickly sees the reality of the situation: If you aren’t talking about how to overcome economic difficulties and social injustices, people won’t listen. Citizens don’t have the time or the interest in large-scale engineering projects or big investment strategies. You have to focus instead on urban poverty and injustice — on children who don’t have enough educational opportunities; young people and women who are struggling with unemployment or unequal wages; and all the disadvantaged groups who are barely involved in urban life.
My message — that Istanbul needs a more responsive and accountable mayor — was rewarded at the ballot box. We won our victory despite the countless obstacles put in place by the ruling party to prevent just such an outcome. Seventeen days later, following the lead of the ruling party, the Supreme Electoral Council annulled the results.
So now our campaign — including 155,000 volunteers working day to day — has started over, setting its sights on June 23. I strongly believe that if the will of the voters can be expressed freely and fairly in Istanbul, without any interference in the rule of law, the awe-inspiring energy of citizens will show that it is possible to stand against authoritarian power. True resilience requires overcoming divisions through dialogue and consultation with the people — lessons that have applicability well beyond Turkey. Pluralism is not our enemy, either here at home or in the world outside. We must embrace it and play to the strength that diversity brings.