Erdogan backs former environment chief to win back Istanbul

Erdogan backs former environment chief to win back Istanbul
Murat Kurum, who currently represents one of Istanbul's districts in Turkey's parliament, will attempt to retake Istanbul for Erdogan's AKP party.
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Photo by Islam Yakut/Anadolu via Getty Images

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday entrusted a former environment minister to run for mayor of Istanbul and avenge the worst political defeat of the Turkish leader's two-decade rule.

Murat Kurum will represent Erdogan's Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 31 March municipal elections in which control of Turkey's main cities will be up for grabs.

The secular opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) seized back control of Istanbul for the first time since Erdogan ruled the city as mayor in the 1990s in watershed 2019 polls.

That vote also saw the opposition win back the capital Ankara and keep power in the Aegean port city of Izmir.

The opposition's control of Turkey's three main cities shattered Erdogan's image of political invincibility and underscored the levels of resentment rising against his dominant rule.

The president's rivals campaigned against perceived corruption and a sweeping political crackdown that followed a failed 2016 coup attempt.

Erdogan bounced back last year to win a tough re-election that came in the throes of an economic crisis in which the annual inflation rate topped 85 percent.

He has since set his sights on winning back Istanbul - the city where he grew up playing street football and where he launched his political career as a self-proclaimed champion of Turkey's pious Muslims and the poor.

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"We say no stopping until March 31, keep going," Erdogan told cheering supporters during a party congress in Istanbul.

"We stand before our nation with candidates who run for solutions rather than excuses, who act with humility rather than arrogance," he said.

'Special attention'

Kurum graduated from Konya's Selcuk University with a degree in civil engineering and served as Erdogan's environment and urbanisation minister from 2018 until last year.

Turkish media reported that the 47-year-old Ankara native came out on top of an internal party poll Erdogan oversaw last month.

Kurum also worked in Turkey's housing development administration and became a member of parliament representing one of Istanbul's districts last year.

His wife Sengul has held a senior position at Turkey's powerful RTUK media regulator since 2021.

Kurum's background as an urban planner fits with Erdogan's claims that Istanbul has become run down and dysfunctional under opposition control.

Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu edged out Erdogan's ally in a 2019 election that gained international headlines for being controversially annulled.

Imamoglu won a re-run vote by a massive margin that turned him into an instant hero for the opposition and a formidable foe for Erdogan.

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The 52-year-old is widely seen as the opposition's best bet at winning back the presidency from Erdogan's AKP in 2028.

He was effectively barred from running for president last year because of a politically-charged defamation conviction that his supporters viewed as Erdogan's vendetta for losing in 2019.

But he has challenged the ruling and has said repeatedly that he would like to run for president one day.

A defeat for Imamoglu in March could sink his political ambitious and leave the opposition with no clear presidential candidate to run in 2028.

Kurum appeared to take a potshot at Imamoglu's national aspirations in a social media message posted after his candidacy was confirmed.

"We are here to manage Istanbul in a systematic and planned manner and to give the city the special attention it deserves," Kurum said.