In normal times, the election of a mayor in Istanbul would not be a point of inspiration. Yet with Turkey, which, like many democracies descending toward dictatorship, these are not normal times. Sunday’s election of a new mayor in Turkey’s largest city did indeed prove to be a light unto the world.
The winner, Ekrem İmamoğlu, not only defeated the candidate of the ruling party of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but he also did so by countering the kind of incivility that can mark a democracy’s decline.
He kept smiling amid the many smears thrown at him (e.g., “terrorist”) by the ruling Justice and Development Party. Rather than hold a grudge, Mr. İmamoğlu embraced his opponents, even meeting with the president to discuss Turkey’s future. In a signal of tranquillity, he adopted the slogan “Everything is going to be just fine.”
His tactics stood out against the harsh politics and increasingly authoritarian rule in Turkey. “If the mayor isn’t genial, then the citizen isn’t either,” he said. “Even a single person being slighted or offended will sadden me.”
In his victory speech, he told Mr. Erdoğan that he is ready “to work with you in harmony” – even though the president had arranged to annul Mr. İmamoğlu’s first election win in March. He said his victory in the June 23 rerun election turned a new page toward “justice, equality, love” and away from corruption and nepotism.
Mr. İmamoğlu also offered this advice to other countries going “down the road” of political suppression: “It is no road at all.” Not surprisingly, he won votes across Turkey’s political spectrum.
In the United States, his approach is similar to that of presidential candidate Joe Biden, who pledges never to demonize opponents. After Mr. Biden recently noted his ability to work with segregationist senators in past decades, he was criticized by fellow Democrats. In Mr. Biden’s defense, the country’s most prominent black politician, Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, offered this:
“During the height of the civil rights movement, we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan – people who opposed us, even people who beat us and arrested us and jailed us. We never gave up on our fellow human beings, and I will not give up on any human being.”
The idea that another person can teach us something – no matter how much we dislike the person’s views or behavior – is the heart of civility. In the new book “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump,” scholar Peter Wehner explains why respect remains critical in a democracy: “Undergirding this belief for many of us is the conviction that we’re all image-bearers of God – ‘a work of divine art’ in the words of theologian Richard Mouw – which demands that we respect human dignity.”
At a time when 87% of Americans think political polarization is “threatening” the American way of life, there is a hunger for politicians who can lead by example. For Mr. Wehner, the task “is not simply to curse the political darkness but to light candles.”
In Turkey, Mr. İmamoğlu’s campaign style lit up the political landscape. He asked the world to take note. If he can now rule over Istanbul’s 16 million residents the way he campaigned, we should all face the light.