Istanbul went back to the polls on Sunday in a re-run of the mayoral election that has become a test of Turkish democracy as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s continued popularity at a time of economic trouble.
Election authorities annulled the first vote in March after Erdogan’s party alleged corruption in a count that showed the ruling AKP’s candidate had narrowly lost.
Critics say Erdogan simply did not like the March 31 result, after a little-known former district mayor, 49-year-old Ekrem Imamoglu, snatched victory for the opposition by just 13,000 votes.
The city of 15 million is Turkey’s economic powerhouse and has been a crucial source of patronage for Islamic conservatives since Erdogan himself won the mayorship a quarter-century ago.
But Imamoglu, of the secular Republican People’s Party, has become a household name since being stripped of his victory.
He has vowed a “battle for democracy” and used an upbeat message under the slogan “Everything will be fine”, in stark contrast to the usual aggressive name-calling of Turkish politics.
At a voting station in the trendy Beyoglu neighborhood, 31-year-old architect Begum said: “I voted against injustice and those who seek to polarize this nation.”
Imamoglu faces Binali Yildirim, a mild-mannered Erdogan loyalist who oversaw several huge transport projects and served as prime minister.
Yildirim’s well-funded campaign has included ads on YouTube to attract younger voters and support from a pliant mainstream media.
Fearing fraud, the opposition has mobilized an army of lawyers from across Turkey to monitor Sunday’s election, with the Istanbul Bar Association unfurling a huge banner at their headquarters that reads: “Stand guard for democracy”.
The March election showed Erdogan’s party remains the most popular in Turkey, adored by millions for overseeing dramatic growth, fiercely defending the country’s interests abroad and allowing religious conservatives a seat at the table.
But double-digit inflation and rising unemployment have dented Erdogan’s reputation for economic stewardship.
Analysts warn he faces a “lose-lose” situation: a second defeat would undermine his image of invincibility and embolden rivals within his party, while a victory would forever be seen as stolen by the opposition.
“Everyone believes there was injustice. A flood of people are coming to Istanbul, cutting short their vacation to vote,” said Jale Ucmaz, a retired teacher voting in the district that Imamoglu ran for five years.
But many AKP supporters have wholly accepted the line that there was fraud in the first vote.
“If there’s something like stolen votes, I think it’s better to re-do the election in the name of democracy,” said 45-year-old Huseyin as he queued to cast his ballot.
The controversy surrounding the rerun may explain Erdogan’s relative silence, with no repeat of the tireless rallying last time, when he made 102 appearances in just 50 days.
Last weekend, he played down the Istanbul vote as “only a change in the shop window” since the AKP already runs almost two-thirds of the city’s districts.
The Kurdish factor
The AKP has still gone to great lengths to rally conservative voters who abstained in March.
It has also tried to win over Kurds, who number in the millions in Istanbul and have been angered by the crackdown on Kurdish activists in recent years.
Yildirim travelled to one of the main Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir this month and uttered the word “Kurdistan” — a taboo in Turkey.
There have even been signs of dialogue with the jailed leader of the Kurdish insurgency, Abdullah Ocalan, who this week called on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party to remain neutral in the election, though it has continued to back Imamoglu.
Image: AFP / Yasin AKGUL Ekrem Imamoglu (C), Istanbul mayoral candidate, has promised a battle for democracy in the rerun of the city’s election