Istanbul Set for Today’s Contentious Rerun of Mayoral Race
Opposition candidate leads in polls, placing President Erdogan’s political future in question
An impromptu demonstration march on Friday night down Istanbul’s main pedestrian street by a small group of supporters of opposition mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu clearly demonstrates how emboldened the opposition feels as the city goes into today’s mayoral election – its second in less than three months.
The demonstrators chanted Imamgolu’s campaign slogan, “Everything will be fine,” and carried a flag with his likeness.
Imamgolu is leading in the polls against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s candidate Binali Yildirim, placing the political future of Erdogan himself in question. Yildirim is a former Turkish prime minister and a founding member of Erdogan’s AK Party (AKP).
The results of the initial March 31 election were nullified by the country’s national election committee after Imamoglu, a relatively unknown politician from the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), defeated Yildirim by an ultra-slim margin: 48.80 percent to 48.55%.
Erdogan’s AKP claimed widespread irregularities, insisting, for example, that people working on the election were not civil servants, as required by law. Erdogan himself alleged that there had been connections to organized crime.
Imamoglu was mayor for less than three weeks when the voting outcome was annulled and new elections were called.
Erdogan’s decision to push for a rerun could very well backfire. Polls have given the CHP candidate a wider lead than in the previous race, and Unal Cevikoz, a CHP member of parliament for an Istanbul district, predicted that Imamoglu would win again.
“Really big. This time the difference will be higher,” Cevikoz wrote in a statement to The Media Line.
He added that a televised debate held a week before the vote – the first to be broadcast in almost 20 years – helped give Imamoglu a boost as would “people’s perception that the 31st March election results [were] unlawfully cancelled and confiscated.”
Both Imamoglu and Yildirim are trying to gain control of the country’s largest city and economic hub, which has an annual budget of almost $4 billion.
In the initial campaign, Erdogan was a strong presence, often going to multiple rallies in a single day. For the rerun, the president at first took a backseat to his ally, but possibly feeling the pressure of another potential defeat, Erdogan recently became much more vocal.
He claimed Imamoglu was connected to an exiled cleric now living in the United States whom Ankara accuses of masterminding a 2016 coup attempt. Imamoglu denied the accusations.
The AKP also tried to appeal to Kurdish voters, who represent 15% of the electorate in Istanbul. Yildirim visited the heavily-Kurdish southeastern section of the city and spoke in Kurdish. Yet, according to pollsters, Kurdish voters do not seem to be shifting their support to Erdogan’s side.
The stunning earlier loss for Erdogan’s party in Istanbul came alongside another defeat in the capital Ankara, where a CHP member is now mayor. However, it was the loss of control over Istanbul that was especially painful for the Turkish president, as the city is his hometown, the place where he entered politics and became mayor in the 1990s.
The AKP’s defeat was likely due in part to concerns over the economy, which entered a recession at the end of last year following a summertime crisis with the US, which in turn led to a freefall of the national currency.
The outlook for the future is not much better. The Turkish lira has been hit over fears of an impending crisis with the US due to Ankara’s purchase of a Russian-made air-defense system, and possible sanctions from Washington over this could spell disaster for Turkey’s finances.
Can Selcuki, a pollster and general manager with Istanbul Economics Research, said that part of Imamoglu’s success has been in appealing to a broader electorate.
“If Mr. Imamoglu wins with a larger margin [than before], then obviously that would have implications for the AKP and Turkish politics going forward,” Selcuki told The Media Line. “The economy is in a really bad state…. If Mr. Erdogan can’t fix that, then obviously it will start hurting his popularity as well.”
Though opposition political figures often struggle to reach the public because of the pro-government media, Imamoglu has nevertheless been able to garner significant coverage.
Gurkan Ozturan, executive manager of Dokuz 8 News, which organizes election monitors for the vote-counting process, told The Media Line that news outlets seem to be accepting the fact that there could be a change in power.
“Unlike previous elections, Imamoglu as the opposition candidate has received quite a bit of coverage in the media,” Ozturan said. “The media bosses seem to be giving more of a platform to the opposition.”