Turkey’s main opposition party rebuffed rumors of a divide between its cautious leader and the high-flying mayor of Istanbul on who should challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the presidential race next year.
“We are like father and son,” chair Kemal Kilicdaroglu said Tuesday at the meeting of his social democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP) as he pointed to Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul’s popular mayor. Imamoglu traveled to the Turkish capital to meet him and participate in the party’s parliamentary faction meeting. “Imamoglu is not only the son of this party but my own. Therefore, it is my — and our — duty to stand behind him,” he pledged.
Last week, a court sentenced Imamoglu to two years and seven months in prison for insulting public officials after the 2019 local elections. Though Imamoglu will not serve time in prison as the sentence is shorter than five years, the sentence effectively bars him from political office for the duration.
If the Court of Appeals and Court of Cassation uphold his conviction, he would need to step down as mayor of Istanbul, the city he took from the clutches of the ruling party three years ago. No one knows how long the appeal will take. It could be concluded before or after Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections, due between April and June.
Since the pronunciation of the verdict, the media-savvy businessman from the Black Sea has dominated Turkey’s headlines, reviving the debate about whether he is a better choice to dethrone Erdogan than Kilicdaroglu, a retired bureaucrat. Several columnists, particularly those close to the government, pointed out that Imamoglu's rising profile posed an obstacle to Kilicdaroglu's potential candidacy.
Speaking with Imamoglu at his side, Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan and his supporters of trying to drive a wedge between them to weaken the opposition before the presidential race. “I am warning you, you cannot pull that stunt. I am also telling you, Erdogan, do not give in to hubris and greed. You just have a few months left,” he said.
The CHP leader called last week’s ruling a “sham” orchestrated by the presidency. “The palace wrote the verdict, and the judge read it out,” he said.
Imamoglu told journalists that he was flattered by Kilicdaroglu’s words of support.
The rumors of discord were partly fueled by Kilicdaroglu's conspicuous absence from the large crowd that gathered in front of the town hall immediately after the verdict was read. Imamoglu had delivered a defiant speech that the opposition would win Turkey “just like it won Istanbul” next to Meral Aksener, the leader of the right-wing Iyi or Good Party. It's the second largest in the Party of Six, a political platform of CHP, Iyi and four smaller parties.
The Table of Six is striving to maintain a face of unity, claiming that they have agreed not to name a presidential candidate before the election date is clear. However, many analysts believe they have not found a candidate acceptable to all. Pro-AKP pundit Abdulkadir Selvi maintains that Aksener, who makes repeated references to “a candidate that can win,” is dead set against Kilicdaroglu, who she (and many pollsters) see as the least likely person to beat Erdogan. Aksener paid visits to two other potential candidates from the CHP: Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, the right-of-center mayor of Ankara some of the latest polls show as the winner in a likely race with Erdogan.
In an indirect message to Aksener, Kemal Kilicdaroglu told journalists in Ankara Monday that a party should not intervene in other parties’ internal processes. “Each party has its own rules, its own decision-making,” he said.
While both Kilicdaroglu and Imamoglu maintain that the candidate would be determined by the Table of Six, neither has closed the door on their own candidacy. “Kemal is coming,” Kilicdaroglu said Tuesday. Imamoglu, speaking to Fatih Altaylı Monday night, said he was one of the players on the opposition team. “It is the technical director’s decision whether I would play or not,” he said in his usual metaphoric speech. “But the great thing is that the team against Erdogan had many players who could change the game. The government is stuck with a single candidate, not the opposition.”
A recent poll by Istanbul Economics Research & Consultancy of 1,500 people across Turkey in the immediate aftermath of last week’s ruling, found 64% consider Imamoglu's conviction unfair, 14% fair and 22% have no opinion. Broken down by political affiliation, more than 90% of the voters of the CHP, İyi and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) said that the decision was unfair, a view shared by more than one third of AKP voters and half of Nationalist Movement Party voters, the AKP's ally.
When asked whether they considered the verdict politically motivated, a similar divide emerged: 62% overall thought so. While 93% of CHP supporters found the ruling political, only 40% of AKP voters did. Ankara-based pollster MAK conducted an online survey with 5,000 people and found that 71% thought the ruling was politically motivated.
Erdogan said in a statement three days after the ruling that the matter was a judicial issue. “There’s still no final court decision yet. The case will go to the Court of Appeals and the Court of Cassation. If the court made a mistake it will be corrected.”