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Turkish mayor's conviction unites opposition, but challenger to Erdogan unclear

Turkey's opposition leaders are rallying around the case of Ekrem Imamoglu, whose conviction seems to have kicked off the campaign for next year’s elections.
YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

ISTANBUL — The prison sentence and political ban handed to the opposition mayor of Istanbul has thrown Turkish politics into turmoil as people grapple with the implications for next year’s presidential election. 

The sentence issued Wednesday against Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is widely considered a bid by the government to prevent him from standing against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a vote scheduled for June. 

Most polls had found Imamoglu, who won control of Turkey’s largest city in a 2019 landslide, one of the most likely opposition candidates to defeat Erdogan as he seeks a third term. 

The political ban, if upheld on appeal, will bar him from serving in office during the prison term, which could be suspended. A date for the appeal is yet to be set, so it could happen before or after the election. 

Imamoglu was convicted on Wednesday of insulting members of the Supreme Election Board in a speech he made following his victory three years ago. He had been forced to stand in a vote redo after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) raised allegations of voting irregularities in the first poll. 

As the debate rages about the case, which began in May last year, the government and its supporters maintain that the courts are independent. Few doubt, however, that the AKP has weaponized the judiciary to target its opponents. 

Erdogan would reportedly prefer to face CHP head Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the presidential race, which is due to be held alongside a parliamentary election. Under his 12 years as CHP leader, the party has failed to win a national election. 

Among the opposition parties, some have formed an alliance known as the Table of Six are said to favor Imamoglu’s candidacy, most notably Meral Aksener, who heads the Iyi Party, the second largest in the bloc. 

Following the sentencing, Aksener was the first to head to the Istanbul municipality’s headquarters to speak alongside Imamoglu. Kilicdaroglu was in Berlin at the time of the hearing.  

Five of the six opposition leaders met for a rally on Thursday in front of tens of thousands of people at the municipality’s offices in Istanbul’s Sarachane district. 

“President Erdogan brought the opposition together,” said Osman Sert, research director at private polling company Panormatr. “During the last three or four months there was confusion among members of the opposition regarding the candidate, the mechanism, the coalition protocol and everybody had question marks over the candidacy of Mr. Kilicdaroglu."

Sert went on, "But Mr. Erdogan has given a huge opportunity to the opposition to come together. … Today they will be together in Sarachane. This will be the first public rally of the Table of Six and Mr. Erdogan has given the opposition cause to come together. This will be the kick-off for the opposition’s election campaign and that’s why it’s important.” 

Karol Wasilewski, a Turkey analyst for the Warsaw-based consultancy firm 4CF The Futures Literacy Company, said Erdogan faces the risk of a public backlash in pursuing Imamoglu's prosecution. 

“For the Turks, the elections are a sacred thing since they are one of the few moments when they can exercise their political rights in a relatively free way,” he said, also noting that elections themselves are not free or fair. 

Recalling the local election in 2019, when the cancelled Istanbul poll saw Imamoglu increase his winning margin in the redo by more than 792,000 votes, Wasilewski added, “I think that there will be a backlash because the Turks do not like it when their election rights are limited and the Istanbul elections proved just that.” 

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said that the decision to target Imamoglu along with the cutting of interest rates that led to rampant inflation would be seen as two “fatal mistakes” by Erdogan should he lose the election. 

“This decision has undoubtedly boosted Imamoglu’s prestige and reputation but it has also boosted his political risk,” he said. “Nevertheless, in a way Imamoglu has become similar to a political martyr now. He has become a uniting banner for the Table of Six. Their rally is basically the start of the opposition campaign, rallying against the ban on Imamoglu.” 

The case appeared to cause discomfort in AKP circles, with many senior AKP figures and pro-government commentators condemning the outcome. 

Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist for the Hurriyet newspaper known to be close to ruling circles, pointed out that Erdogan himself was jailed and banned from politics while serving as Istanbul mayor in the late 1990s.  

“Not only will Ekrem Imamoglu pay for this but our democracy will pay. Politics will pay,” he wrote Thursday. “My country will be stigmatized as a country that has banned a politician elected by the votes of millions of people.” 

Former President Abdullah Gul, a cofounder of the AKP, tweeted, “Today’s court decision is a great injustice not only against Ekrem Imamoglu but also against Turkey. The will of the people is above all. I believe the higher courts will correct this mistake.” 

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