ISTANBUL - Istanbul votes again in a mayoral election Sunday, after authorities voided an opposition victory in March that ended 15 years of control by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP Party.
The CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu, a once-obscure opposition figure, pulled off the political upset, but it was eventually undone by Turkey’s president, who cited mistakes in the appointment of polling station officials. Imamoglu was booted out of his office and Turkish officials ordered a re-run.
Erdogan, in what is being seen as a last-minute bid to win Sunday, is looking to an imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader in an effort to deny the opposition key Kurdish votes.
Jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, in a handwritten letter, called on Kurds to remain “neutral” in Sunday’s vote.
Now, Imamoglu is back on the campaign trail, targeting electoral strongholds of his opponent.
Thousands turned out Wednesday to hear his message in Istanbul’s Sancaktepe district, a faraway suburb dominated by AKP supporters.
“What do we love?” Imamoglu asked, speaking on top of a campaign bus. “We love democracy. We love freedom, we love fraternity (brotherhood), we love peace. We love being united with our nation.”
Defending democracy slogan
Imamoglu’s message of reaching across Turkey’s deep political divide is widely seen as having been key to his victory in the March poll. Coupled with his slogan of defending democracy in Turkey, some see him picking up steam on the campaign trail.
“We are definitely putting up a struggle for rights, law and justice. We are putting up a fight against those who stole our democratic rights on March 31st,” he said to the cheering crowd.
The message of democracy resonated with some voters listening to Imamoglu.
“For me, Imamoglu had already won,” said a retiree, who declined to be named. “As this is a case of stealing, we will go and vote for Imamoglu again just to spite them.”
With 1 in 3 youth unemployed in Istanbul, a city hit hard by the country’s economic slowdown, it is the economy that matters most for some.
“He promises jobs. We are unemployed. We are university graduates but have no jobs. We don’t get posts,” said Neslihan, who only gave her first name. “People are hungry. They cannot take bread to their homes. All the beautiful things will come with Imamoglu.”
“Republican People’s Party (CHP) received a very positive reaction that it had not seen for a long time and could increase its share of votes compared to past,” says Nazli Okten, who teaches sociology at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University.
AKP candidate fights back
Across the city in the Kucukcekmece district, AKP candidate Binali Yildirim avoids talking about the economy and focuses on his claim the March election was stolen from him by fraud, a charge not upheld by the electoral authorities.
“Do not forget that we have unfinished business left from March 31st,” said Yildirim in a speech to supporters in Istanbul.
The crowd shouts back, “We will not forget.”
Kucukcekmece is an AKP stronghold. Yildirim is also seeking to rally the base with a message of defending democracy.
“Justice will be served, that is how we should call it,” said Hanife, a shop owner. “Justice will be served. Our votes were not counted, in the last election. Where did they disappear? Where has my vote gone?”
Hanife is one of many who credit their success to AKP party rule in Istanbul.
“I am a shop owner for 12 years and have been living here for 22 years. I own a clothing store, a boutique, and I opened it with my state’s support. I got a credit from our state and opened it. That is why I support them,” Hanife said.
With Istanbul accounting for a third of the Turkish economy and its $8 billion budget, the stakes are high in Sunday’s poll.
“Politically, this is a vital importance in terms of the use and distribution of Istanbul resources,” sociologist Okten said. “The side that uses these resources wisely will get a significant share of votes in the general elections in the long run.”
In a last-minute move, Erdogan has stepped into the campaign as the latest opinion polls point to a resounding defeat for his candidate, a signal the Istanbul election could prove to be as much about his future as the city’s.