ISTANBUL — The two main contenders for Istanbul mayor squared off on live television in a rare political debate late on Sunday. The city is gearing up for a controversial do-over election after the opposition candidate’s upset victory in March was nullified.
People from across Turkey tuned into the broadcast of former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who is on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ticket, and the opposition’s Ekrem Imamoglu, a former district mayor for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), in the first election debate in Turkey since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party came to power in 2002 and discarded the ritual.
The discussion was largely cordial — including an exchange of Father’s Day gifts at the outset and posing for a photo with their spouses at the conclusion — but at points became tense, with both men frequently accusing the other side of lying.
Much of the debate went to relitigating the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) decision to cancel the first election, with Yildirim arguing votes cast for him in March had been misattributed to Imamoglu. “This is theft,” he said. “Some strange things happened during the count, casting doubt” on the outcome.
“Who are you accusing of theft?” Imamoglu responded. “The YSK report does not say ‘theft,’ but in the squares, in front of the mosque, there are allegations of theft. For God’s sake, who stole it?”
On March 31, Imamoglu captured the municipality from Erdogan’s political movement that has controlled Turkey’s biggest city for a quarter-century. He took office a few weeks later after a series of partial recounts reduced but failed to erase his winning margin of fewer than 14,000 votes.
But in early May the YSK revoked his mandate after agreeing with the AKP’s objections that the appointment of a small number of polling station officials did not follow regulations. The council’s decision to let district and councilor election results stand, despite being cast in the same ballot envelopes, led the CHP to accuse the YSK of bias, since the AKP had won the majority of those races.
To illustrate the controversy, Imamoglu pulled a 20-lira note from his pocket. “You’re telling people that five lira of this 20-lira bill is fake. No one will believe this,” he said, delivering one of the debate’s few zingers.
He also took to task the previous administration’s diversion of millions of liras to charities run by family members of the ruling party or others close to it, saying he would only work with “clean” non-governmental organizations. Yildirm gave a sharp retort: “How will you choose clean foundations? Are you going to wash them with detergent?”
Other topics in the three-hour broadcast ranged from policies concerning the half-million Syrian refugees who live in Istanbul to the city’s lack of green space and boosting female employment.
The avuncular Yildirim, 63, brandished his 25 years of experience in government, stoically outlining major infrastructure projects he has led, while an energetic Imamoglu, 49, promised to eradicate partisanship, “this country’s greatest enemy.”
A one-off debate following a recently contested election is unlikely to change voters’ minds, and the candidates instead sought to consolidate their support, said Emre Erdogan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
“If you ask either side, they believe they won the election. Neither candidate was able to persuasively argue that the election was stolen from them,” he told Al-Monitor. “But both candidates were able to clearly convey their messages to their own side when what matters most is getting voters to the polls.”
“Anger will be the main motivation in this election, and that was reflected in the debate. It became a debate over issues of morality,” he said.
Watching an exchange of views at all is uncommon in Turkey, where Erdogan dominates the media landscape in which 90% of television channels and newspapers are run by pro-government entities and hundreds of journalists, politicians and activists who are critical of Erdogan’s rule are in prison.
Audience numbers were not available, but the broadcast topped the ratings and likely attracted millions of viewers from outside of Istanbul. Coastal resort towns reportedly erected large screens in public spaces and bars shut off music until the debate was over.
In Istanbul, several hundred people gathered in a district park on the Asian side in the CHP stronghold of Kadikoy, sipping beer and munching on chips while Yildirim and Imamoglu sparred.
“Turkey was missing this kind of debate. It’s important for us to see that politics can be discussed, that problems can be debated,” said Omer, a teacher who declined to give his surname.
“It won’t change people’s opinions because people are far too polarized. But at least it gives the veneer that we are having a normal election,” said his friend Burak.
Before the debate, Erdogan sought to downplay the importance of the election redo. “It’s just a mayor who’s going to be chosen, a change in the display case. Our party has a vast majority in parliament and controls all of its commissions,” he said, adding that the AKP also runs 25 of Istanbul’s 39 district municipalities.
But the AKP not only lost Istanbul in March but the capital Ankara and a string of smaller provincial capitals amid widespread discontent with a sharp economic downturn. A second defeat in Istanbul would raise questions about how tight Erdogan’s grip is on the country he has run for 16 years, especially with signs of restlessness within his own party.
Opinion polls have shown Yildirim may be closing the gap but most still place Imamoglu in the lead. There has been speculation Erdogan may be trying to distance himself from the election, especially since he has largely abandoned the campaign trail. Ahead of the March vote, he was on the stump every day, warning that a vote for the opposition would imperil the country’s survival.
His withdrawal is a gamble, others argue. Even if support for the AKP wanes, voters still believe Erdogan, still Turkey’s most popular politician, is the best man to solve their problems, wrote Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist for Hurriyet newspaper who is seen as close to the government. “They want to see the old boss return,” he said.
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