Challenger set to again beat Turkey’s ruling party and win Istanbul rerun

By staying cool and seeking to unite rather than divide, main opposition Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu has beaten back a steady stream of attacks and looks set to win Sunday’s rerun election, potentially reviving Turkish democracy and eroding President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s stranglehold on power.

His opponent once again is Binali Yıldırım of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). İmamoğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) narrowly won the initial vote on March 31, a result that was later annulled by the country’s election council after Erdoğan and the AKP complained of irregularities.

Rather than get angry and attack his opponents, İmamoğlu stayed calm and told his supporters in a speech the next day, “Everything will be alright.” That phrase rings out across Istanbul these days, as the chorus of İmamoğlu’s campaign song, according to a Wednesday report in the German news outlet Qantara.

It could be that steadiness, paired with a campaign based on kindness and love, that has the CHP candidate between two to eight points ahead in the latest election polls.

“My hunch is that there is a deep flow [of support] running towards İmamoğlu,” Ali Çarkoğlu, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Koç University, told the Financial Times. “The wind is behind his sail.”

An opposition victory would anoint İmamoğlu as a national political star and push the AKP and its predecessors out of the Istanbul mayor’s office for the first time since Erdoğan won the post in 1994.

“The vote represents much more than a municipal contest. Mr Erdoğan, who is facing mounting discontent over an economic downturn and his increasingly authoritarian style of leadership, has staked his credibility on his party’s success in the rerun,” said the FT. “Mr İmamoğlu, who claims he was wrongfully stripped of his victory, has described the poll as not just a local election but ‘a fight for democracy’.”

The CHP would also gain control of the AKP’s vast network of patronage and procurement, and would potentially be able to re-orient Turkey’s financial and cultural capital away from the mega-projects that have been Erdoğan’s signature, from the third Bosporus bridge to the massive, newly opened airport.

Qantara pointed out that a CHP mayor would likely threaten the president’s favourite project, a 50-km canal parallel to the Bosporus that would make the city’s European side an island. “The AKP project, which Erdoğan says will create thousands of new jobs, has been strongly criticised by environmental groups and city planners,” said Qantara.

Considering the stakes, it is no surprise that the AKP and its backers have tried everything to gain an advantage. Pro-government media outlets have manipulated videos of İmamoğlu and sought to tarnish him by calling him a Greek. Erdoğan this week compared the CHP candidate to Egypt’s president, who came to power in a 2013 coup.

There have been rumours that the AKP chose June 23 because it is a date on which many CHP voters tend to holiday along the Turkish coast, and would thus be unable to vote. The town council of Datça, a popular Aegean resort, address this in an announcement, according to Qantara: "Due to expected simultaneous sand and snow storms, all our beaches are closed on 23 June! ... Dear people of Istanbul, please go to the ballot boxes for your future."

The AKP may now be working to convince Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), to encourage Kurds to vote for Yıldırım, according to the Ankara bureau chief of pro-government newspaper Sabah.

This could potentially swing the result, as Öcalan remains the most influential voice among Kurds in Turkey and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) decision to not field a candidate in Istanbul on March 31 and instead back the CHP is widely seen as the key to İmamoğlu’s narrow victory.

Observers on both sides are concerned about vote rigging. Thousands of lawyers and other volunteers, including some coming from 1,500 miles away, have descended on Istanbul to staff polling stations on Sunday, according to FT.

“With the CHP, the AKP and the Istanbul Bar Association each promising to deploy at least 5,000 lawyers on Sunday, the city’s 2,000 polling stations look set to be inundated with legal experts,” said FT.

As it did for the March 31 vote, the Council of Europe will also send a delegation to monitor Sunday’s election and present its preliminary findings the next morning, the Council announced on Thursday.

Turnout is expected to be high, but some observers still fear a last-minute AKP move to manipulate the result. “No matter how many lawyers we have out in the field, if they change the rules once the election has begun then there’s not much we can do,” a lawyer helping coordinate the election monitoring told FT.