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Steinmeier and İmamoğlu Meet: A Shift in Turkish Politics and New Challenges for Erdoğan

M. Ahmet Karabay

We are living through days where it seems like everything has changed, yet nothing has changed. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is also the chairman of the ruling AK Party and sitting in the presidential chair, has now had the label of a “lame duck,” previously given by him to the Mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Ekrem İmamoğlu, firmly stamped on his own forehead. The visit of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Turkey has clarified much about what has changed.

When Ekrem İmamoğlu was first elected as the Mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan five years ago, he was labeled as a “lame duck” by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who could not see himself as the president of Turkey. Erdoğan emphasized that the majority in the Istanbul City Council consisted of members from his own party, AK Party. Now, those words have turned back on him.

Having defeated the myth of Erdoğan’s invincibility by winning the position of Mayor of Istanbul twice in 2019, İmamoğlu first went to Diyarbakır for a municipal employee’s wedding, and then kept his promise to CHP MP Veli Ağbaba by visiting Malatya in June 2021. At that time, I dedicated one of my first articles on TR724 to this event, stating “İmamoğlu ‘declares’ his candidacy for the presidency in Malatya.”

I had written my article dated June 18, 2021, assuming that İmamoğlu would be a candidate for the presidency in the May 2023 elections. It seems that İmamoğlu needs to emerge in the next elections to win by a clearer margin. Likely, he will be one of the two strongest candidates in the elections to be held before 2028, probably in 2026.

Whether İmamoğlu is the right candidate is another discussion. However, this society, which loves Erdoğan, seems to have embraced İmamoğlu, a different version of him.

GERMAN PRESIDENT’S PROGRAM IN TURKEY

In his first five-year term starting February 2017, German President Steinmeier did not visit Turkey. Re-elected in February 2022, he is visiting Turkey for the first time in his seventh year of office, although he hosted Erdoğan in his country in 2018. The German President, who holds a doctorate in law, had told his guest during a dinner in Berlin that one should not stray from law and human rights. Erdoğan, on the other hand, reacted with words that could be summarized as “such things should not be discussed at a friendly table.”

During a period when Erdoğan’s party has fallen to second place in the recent elections, Steinmeier is visiting Turkey. The schedule for his meeting with Erdoğan on Wednesday was set by the protocol of the Presidential Complex. However, the program in Istanbul, Gaziantep, and Ankara, outside of the meeting with Erdoğan, was determined by the Bellevue Palace in Berlin.

Therefore, the content of Steinmeier’s program in Turkey is very important. It has been known for years that Germany, the third-largest economy in the world and a leader of the European Union (EU), is uncomfortable with the deadlock Turkey has been dragged into.

Germany, which officially hosts 3.5 million people of Turkish origin, faces new waves of migration as Turkey weakens. According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), people of Turkish origin were the second most numerous group applying for asylum last year. Ten years ago, they were not even among the top five.

FIRST MEETING WITH İMAMOĞLU

German President Steinmeier, referred to as a “wounded lion” after the March 31 elections, was welcomed by Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, not by President Erdoğan. İmamoğlu greeted Steinmeier at Sirkeci Train Station, built by German architect August Jackmund (1888-1890). Sirkeci Station is also historically significant as the departure point for the first worker convoy to Germany 62 years ago.

Ekrem İmamoğlu shared this moment in four pictures on his social media with a short note: “We welcomed the German Federal President Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Sirkeci Train Station, the starting point of labor migration to Germany. After our bilateral meeting, we visited the railway museum exhibition about migration narrated by İlber Ortaylı.”

This meeting, presided over by İmamoğlu and Steinmeier, was conducted as an “inter-delegation” meeting. These images, which give İmamoğlu the visibility of a statesman, are likely to be quite unsettling for the Presidential Complex.

Indeed, pro-government media outlets and social media accounts are making efforts to belittle the visit for various reasons. Some criticized the guide of the Sirkeci Station Museum, historian İlber Ortaylı, for using the old names of Istanbul and Edirne during the tour.

While the merchants of our country, who until yesterday sold all kinds of equipment to Israel, could not protest against President Erdoğan, they attempted to protest Steinmeier as he left the Museum of Innocence, curated by our Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, playing “Leve Palestina” (“Long Live Palestine”) by the band Kofia, accepted as the anthem of Palestine, from an antique shop opposite the museum.

HOW DID THE GERMAN PRESS COVER THE STEINMEIER-İMAMOĞLU MEETING?

The meeting between German President Steinmeier and İmamoğlu received extensive coverage in the media of both countries. Former diplomat Haşim Tekineş provided insightful comments to TR724 editor Mehmet Şahin.

Germany’s leading publication Der Spiegel featured the meeting on its politics page with a headline that highlighted the Presidential Complex’s fears.

“Hope for Turkey after Erdoğan” was the headline used by Der Spiegel, indicating that Steinmeier was welcomed by İmamoğlu, seen as the hope of the opposition leading Erdoğan.

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