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ISTANBUL, TURKEY —Ekrem Imamoglu caused a political earthquake in recent local elections in Turkey when he won the Istanbul mayorship, ending 25 years of domination by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, in a controversial move, Turkey's election board annulled the March vote and ordered a re-run. Now the ousted mayor is at the center of a political storm.
Imamoglu, of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), claims his short tenure was enough to uncover gross overspending and waste by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), ammunition that he is set to use in the June 23 re-vote.
During his 19 days in office, Imamoglu toured the city and held mass rallies, where he repeated his pledge to bridge Turkey's deep political divide and bring about good governance.
The rallies were in many ways preparing for another election, with the widely held expectation Erdogan's ruling AKP would not accept the loss of Turkey's most important city, by a mere 13,000 votes.
This month the High Electoral Board made up of mainly Erdogan appointees upheld the AKP's claims of fraud and irregularities. The move drew national and international condemnation.
"This is a blow that will be written in history as a dark stain, this is very clear," said Imamoglu about the annulling of his victory.
"That's why I am very sad," he added, "it is not a sadness directed towards myself; this is sadness for wider society. This is a sadness I feel for seeing such a blow to Turkey's democracy. However, correcting this wrong is down to us. And that's the fight we are now giving."
Imamoglu says his determination to win Istanbul again is buoyed by what he discovered during his short tenure in office.
"Waste!" he said, "the amount of waste that I saw at the İstanbul metropolitan municipality! There is a need for big savings in expenditure."
Istanbul accounts for around a quarter of Turkey's population and a third of country's economy, making it Turkey's most important political prize.
"Istanbul presents so many patronage opportunities," said international relations professor Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "It greases the wheels of politics of those who control it, and the AKP has truly mastered."
Istanbul based pro-government media, most belonging to business conglomerates with close ties to Erdogan, were in the forefront of lobbying for the Istanbul vote to be overturned.
Analysts say the annulling of the vote will damage Erdogan's political legitimacy that is built on electoral success.
Istanbul's streets continue to reverberate to the sound of nighttime protests over the annulling of the vote, as momentum builds for next month's re-vote, touted as one of the country's most important.
"It is obvious that this vote is not only about Istanbul," said Imamoglu. "This is both a local election and a fight for democracy. That's why our campaign will grow much bigger, and hundred thousands of people will participate."
Imamoglu claims tens of thousands of volunteers have already signed up for the election campaign. The CHP's Istanbul success, coupled with last year's unexpectedly competitive presidential challenge, is seen as re-energizing the opposition party.
"Winning is an acquired habit the more you do it, the better you get at it, sort of muscle memory," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. "If they win again (Istanbul re-vote), they will have the wind behind them."
In Imamoglu, the CHP believes they have found a winner, who can finally challenge the AKP, after nearly two decades of defeat.
"Coming out of a very small borough of Istanbul and mounting a very effective election campaign to the point of drawing pro-AKP voters to at least listen to him is impressive," said Yesilada. "And the fact he has retained rather effective [public relations] agencies also attests to his skills."
Mayor of Istanbul's Beylikduzu district, a distant suburb, Imamoglu was largely a political unknown, before being the surprise choice as candidate for city mayor.
But his background is seen to give him advantages. Imamoglu is from the Black Sea region, whose people make up the largest constituency of Istanbul. He also has conservative roots, that analysts say helps to allay concerns of religious AKP voters.
In an image usually associated with Erdogan, Imamoglu routinely breaks fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan with Istanbul families. He appears to cross the divide between the secular and pious effortlessly. Until now Erdogan has successfully portrayed the pro-secular CHP, as "elitist and anti-religious."
Rather than engaging in the politics of polarization, Imamoglu says he's seeking to offer a new kind of politics in the June vote.