Istanbul’s popular mayor faces the threat of being banned from politics in a trial stemming from his surprise election victory over an ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2019. Another session of the ongoing trail was held on Wednesday, and the verdict deferred to November, because both the plaintiff and the prosecutors asked for more time. The opposition claims the case is a political witch-hunt to sideline Ekrem Imamoglu from the presidential race and from the race for CHP leadership, if the party’s current chairman Mr. Kemal Kilicdaroglu is nominated and elected president.
Ekrem Imamoglu’s fate is being watched closely for signs of judicial independence nine months before a general election in which Erdoğan will struggle to extend his two-decade rule.
The 52-year-old Imamoglu is the most internationally recognised of the opposition leaders who might run against Erdoğan.
He also has the most intense personal rivalry with the powerful Turkish leader.
Imamoglu was stripped of his narrow March 2019 win over the ruling party’s candidate after Erdoğan — who launched his own career as Istanbul mayor and viewed the city as his second home — refused to recognise the result.
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suffered a severe setback as his ruling AK Party lost control of the capital Ankara for the first time in a local election and he appeared to concede defeat in the country’s largest city, Istanbul.
Elections officials reported discovering hundreds of thousands of “suspicious votes” after Imamoglu had been sworn into office.
Their decision to call a re-run election for that June sparked global condemnation and mobilised a groundswell of support for Imamoglu that included former ruling party voters.
Imamoglu won the second election by more than 800,000 votes.
But the usually soft-spoken mayor let his lingering bitterness at the ruling party spill over in November 2019.
“Those who cancelled the 31 March election are idiots,” he told reporters at the time.
Erdogan’s ruling AKP party seized on the remark and sued the mayor for “insulting” public officials.
Prosecutors have asked for Imamoglu to be banned from politics and jailed for 15 months — a relatively light sentence that almost never sees people put behind bars.
Defence lawyer Kemal Polat told AFP the mayor would immediately appeal against any ban and keep his job while the case wound its way through the courts.
“Imamoglu can remain in his current position as mayor until the end of the appeals process. He would not have to resign,” Polat said.
Turkey’s Western allies accuse Erdoğan of undermining the independence of the courts and using them against political opponents following a failed military putsch in 2016.
Erdoğan responded to the coup attempt with sweeping purges that saw thousands jailed on “terrorism” and other charges.
Everyone from human rights leaders and civil servants to opposition politicians — many of them from the main pro-Kurdish party — were jailed in mass trials that instilled fear across swathes of Turkish society.
The West sternly urged Erdoğan to abide by European court rulings demanding the release of several of his rivals.
Turkey’s status as a strategic member of NATO and a Muslim-majority democracy in a volatile part of the world has helped to preserve Erdogan’s ties with the West.
But the saga over the 2019 vote turned Imamoglu into a global figure whose sentencing could raise the diplomatic stakes ahead of next year’s vote.
The court case comes with Turkey’s fractured opposition parties still arguing over which candidate to field against Erdoğan next June.
Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas — elected mayor of Ankara in 2019 — have emerged as two of the more popular opposition options because of their success at the ballot box.
Polls show both Imamoglu and Yavas beating Erdoğan in a run-off election that would be called if no one picked up 50%of the vote in the first round.
Imamoglu’s office accused the ruling party of trying to “eliminate him from the upcoming elections”.
Some political analysts agree.
“The authorities could be tempted to knock (Imamoglu) out of the race,” said analyst Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based Edam research institute.
“The opposition would then find its hands tied because it cannot take the risk of calling for protests for fear of legitimising the possible repressions that would follow,” he explained.
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