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Bessma Momani is a professor at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation

Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, voted in Ekrem Imamoglu on Sunday as its new mayor, but this is not an ordinary municipal election; it is a cautious renewal of hope in Turkish democracy. Despite years of rising autocratic rule under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from the arrests and stifling of journalists to the purges of judges, the populist leader from the governing AK Party has chipped away at the edifice of Turkish liberal democracy. Turks are celebrating Mr. Imamoglu’s win, but Mr. Erdogan may try to have the last word.

The charismatic Mr. Imamoglu had won the Istanbul mayoral race in March, but Mr. Erdogan’s AK Party claimed there were irregularities in the vote and the politically captured election commission agreed to annul the results. The message was clear, Istanbul is too valuable to lose to the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Indeed, Mr. Erdogan once said, “He who loses Istanbul, loses Turkey.”

While the symbolism of Mr. Imamoglu winning the same mayoralty that propelled Mr. Erdogan’s own political career was probably biting to the egocentric President, being mayor of Istanbul is also a cash cow. For decades, the building boom of Istanbul has lined the pockets of many of Mr. Erdogan’s cronies in the construction and real estate development sector. From mega malls to a brand new state-of-the-art airport and a new canal linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, municipal taxes, cronyism and corruption run deep through Istanbul’s mayor’s office. Mr. Erdogan’s party losing Istanbul’s mayoral race will invariably hurt the party coffers, but the challenge to Mr. Erdogan runs deep.

Open this photo in gallery:

Ekrem Imamoglu celebrates in front of thousands of supporters at Beylikduzu in Istanbul on June 23, 2019.ONUR GUNAL/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Imamoglu took the politicized annulment of the mayoral election results in remarkably good stride, and the usually skeptical Turks were pleasantly shocked. Using the campaign slogan and hashtag “Everything will be fine,” Mr. Imamoglu encouraged his fellow Turks to be inclusive, respond to hate with love, and remain positive and hopeful. With Turkey’s economic woes piling on top of rising political autocracy, the slogan had surprisingly resonated among many Turks who are understandably frustrated.

In contrast, the AK Party levelled the usual slurs against its opponents, from questioning Mr. Imamoglu’s patriotism because of his Greek origins to suggesting he sympathizes with terrorists for getting support from the mainly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Mr. Imamoglu responded to it all with the grace of a real leader and stayed above the fray to continue to call for civility.

Mr. Imamoglu is a force to be reckoned with not just because of his positive style of campaigning. He is also a new kind of CHP candidate, one who might just break the AK Party monopoly over religious conservatives. For far too long, the AK Party has won Turkish elections in part because it can appeal to pious Muslims who fear that their freedoms to worship, won under the AKP after decades of being denied these rights under the former ruling CHP, would be overturned.

From the basic human right to wear the hijab in public buildings to allowing Turks to be open about their religiosity, many Turks feared a return of the CHP would revert Turkey to hyper-secularism. Mr. Imamoglu finally broke this fear, and the CHP may now be able to appeal to many more Turkish voters.

As a practising Muslim himself, Mr. Imamoglu went to his local mosque and recited scripture in a beautiful tone that perked up his most skeptical constituents’ ears. From tweeting his modest and humble Ramadan Iftar dinner to his followers, to speaking openly about his commitment to his faith, it seems the old CHP has finally found a candidate who can unite highly polarized Turkish voters.

Mr. Imamoglu’s successes will make him a prime target of Mr. Erdogan, who has cunningly worked behind the scenes to prevent the rise of similarly admired and charismatic leaders. He’s sidelined former president Abdullah Gul and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu for perhaps shining too brightly within the AK Party, and worse, he had HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas, who, like Mr. Imamoglu, galvanized voters around an inclusive message, arrested on false charges of terrorism. Mr. Erdogan is a ruthless leader who knows how to play politics by breaking all the rules.

The mayoral election was a good day for Turkish democracy, but make no mistake, Mr. Erdogan will do all he can to prevent the rising star of Mr. Imamoglu from soaring.

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