Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Before Sunday’s municipal election in Istanbul, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”. Opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won the election.
The president’s words confirm the key role the city on the Bosporus plays in the country’s politics. Since 1994, the old capital was a stronghold of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a conservative Islamist party. Between 1994 and 1998 Erdoğan himself served as the city’s mayor. Now it is in the hands of the secular opposition.
Istanbul has a population in excess of 15 million, of which 10.5 million are registered voters. It is Europe’s fourth largest urban area (the sixth in the world), bigger than Moscow and London. Once known as Byzantium and Constantinople, over the centuries it served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires.
According to 2017 data, Istanbul's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) represents 31.2 per cent of the country's total. By comparison, the Turkish capital of Ankara has only 9 per cent. The gap between the two cities is even greater when GDP per capita is considered: Istanbul’s is US$ 17,723 against Ankara’s US$ 14,253.
Most Istanbulites are Muslim, but is home to other important religious groups, mostly from the Ottoman era: Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syriac-Chaldeans, Levantine Catholics and Sephardic Jews. According to a 2000 census, the city has 2,691 mosques, 123 churches, 26 synagogues, 109 Islamic cemeteries and 57 non-Islamic cemeteries.
A bridge between Europe and Asia, a city on land and sea, Istanbul is, thanks to its strategic position, Turkey’s most important economic hub with more than 20 per cent of the country's workforce and 38 per cent of its industrial output.
In the last twenty years, it has seen a series of large-scale projects, backed by Erdoğan, which stimulated the economy, but which risk distorting its historical, cultural and architectural character.
They include railway (2013) and road tunnels (2016) under the Bosporus; a third bridge over the straight; a third airport; new metro lines; a navigable canal, real estate development in the Sulukule district where a large Roma camp once stood; as well as the Panorama Museum opened in 2009, celebrating the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.
Ekrem İmamoğlu, Istanbul’s 49th new mayor, was until his victory, the mayor of Istanbul’s Beylikdüzü district, on the European side. Now he wants to turn the city into an agent of Turkey’s democratic transformation, attracting investors whilst protecting the values of “equality and social justice”. He also wants to implement a new transportation plan and bring to an end real estate speculation.