Turkey Pulse

AKP looks to elbow Saadet out of Istanbul race

Article Summary
As Istanbul’s second municipal election nears, the ruling party is pressuring another Islamist party to bow out and courting Kurdish voters.

With days left before a critical redo of Istanbul’s municipal elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have pulled out all the stops in a concerted effort to assure victory over their secular rival this time.

According to the leader of Felicity or Saadet, a small overtly pro-Islamist party, the latest tactic is to force it to step out of the race. Temel Karamollaoglu said, “Certain people keep raising the question of our leaving the race. We will not withdraw from the race.” Karamollaoglu’s comments came day after Saadet’s Istanbul provincial boss, Abdullah Sevim, said his party was facing intense pressure from the AKP to withdraw its mayoral candidate.

Saadet garnered a measly 1.21% with 103,300 votes in the March 31 polls. But with the race so tight, every single vote counts. If Saadet were to pull out, the AKP is betting that its supporters would turn to it rather than vote for Ekrem Imamoglu, the pro-secular Republican People’s party candidate, who won by a razor-thin margin of 13,000 or so votes.

Recent polls indicate that Imamoglu is now widening the gap, outrunning his AKP rival Binali Yildirim by as much as 9-10 percentage points. Others suggest that turnout on June 23 will top 90% compared with 81% in March.

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Little wonder then that Yildirim paid a visit to Saadet’s mouthpiece, the Milli Gazete, where he apologized for his earlier harsh statements against the party, ostensibly to lure them into his camp. But Karamollaoglu made it clear that he won’t budge.

The AKP hasn’t fared any better with Istanbul's large Kurdish pool of voters, who helped tip the outcome in Imamoglu’s favor in March by not running their own candidate and telling supporters to vote for Imamoglu.

In recent weeks the AKP has extended numerous olive branches to the Kurds. Its efforts include allowing imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan access to his family and lawyers after being held virtually incommunicado for four years. Yildirim went so far as to carry his campaign to Diyarbakir, the Kurds' unofficial capital, where he uttered a few token words in Kurdish and declared that the government was ready to open Kurdish language courses. Yildirim also recalled Turkey’s founding assembly had delegates from “Kurdistan.”

Top leaders of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Ocalan founded, have openly called on the Kurds to back Imamoglu if only to bring down the “fascist” Erdogan. The president is not running and has largely distanced himself from the race, unlike the previous round, when he held rallies every day. Erdogan has grown more vocal in recent days, however, in what some observers say is a sign of jitters. He is also meeting with a select group of foreign journalists tomorrow, the first such briefing in a long time.

Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the largest pro-Kurdish block in the parliament, signaled his support for Imamoglu, saying he welcomed his call for unity among all political parties “including the HDP” during a televised face-off with Yildirim over the weekend. “We have to endorse Mr. Imamoglu’s appeal because we are great when we are together,” he said in a tweet. Demirtas made a similar call in the countdown to March 31 that is believed to have propelled tens of thousands of young Kurds to the polling booths.

Demirtas, who is in jail facing a slew of thinly evidenced terror charges and faces up to 142 years if convicted on all counts, reminded the court during a hearing today that one of the charges being leveled against him was spreading terrorist propaganda because of his use of the term “Kurdistan.”

“Kurdistan is a a motherland of the Kurds. If saying Kurdistan is a crime, then Binali Yildirim should be sharing the defendant’s stand with me.”

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Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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