Istanbul mayoral election shines spotlight on Turkey’s political tensions

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Backdropped by Suleymaniye Mosque, seagulls fly over the Golden Horn in Istanbul (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

Millions of voters in Istanbul go back to the polls for a controversial mayoral election re-run on Sunday, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party tries to wrest back control of Turkey’s largest city.

The high-profile vote is taking place because Turkey’s top election authority ruled in favour of Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, AKP, and cancelled the result of the March 31 vote for mayor of Istanbul, which had given a narrow victory to opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu.

The decision cited a breach of laws concerning the composition of officials overseeing the vote.

Turkey Istanbul Elections
Supporters of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party dance near the Golden Horn in Istanbul (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

The controversial decision fuelled concerns over democracy and the rule of law in Turkey, a Nato member that is still formally a candidate to join the European Union.

Turkey is also a key Western ally in the fight against terrorism and in stemming the flow of refugees to Europe.

The race for Istanbul is seen as a test of Mr Erdogan’s popularity amid a sharp economic downturn, rising unemployment and high food prices.

To its critics, the Islamic-based AKP is entering the election with its democratic credentials dented for triggering the repeat vote.

The election is important because the city of 15 million, straddling Europe and Asia, is Turkey’s financial, commercial and cultural centre, with a budget worth 8.8 billion US dollars last year.

“It’s very risky for any political party to lose Istanbul,” said Can Selcuki, general manager of the Istanbul Economics Research think tank.

“The budget of Istanbul is larger than some sovereign GDPs of small countries.”

The loss of Istanbul in March was a blow to Mr Erdogan’s 25-year dominance of the city as mayor and backer.

He was born in the city and began his political career as mayor.

Turkey Istanbul Mayor
Ekrem Imamoglu (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

He once famously said: “Whoever wins Istanbul wins the whole of Turkey.”

Mr Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for the past 16 years, but a loss could put him on shaky political ground.

News media reports suggest there is growing dissent within his party, with former party heavyweights including ex-president Abdullah Gul and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu reportedly preparing to launch breakaway parties.

Turkey Istanbul Vote
Binali Yildirim (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

The two men have openly criticised AKP for seeking a re-run of the Istanbul vote.

“The re-run decision … definitely made the cracks within the AKP more visible,” Mr Selcuki said.

“If Mr Imamoglu wins, it’s likely those cracks will become even more visible.”

Opinion polls suggest Mr Imamoglu, of the secular centre-left Republican People’s Party, has a slight lead over his rival, the AKP’s candidate Binali Yildirim, who is a former prime minister, transport minister and parliament speaker.

Turkey Istanbul Vote
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, once said whoever wins the city wins Turkey (Presidential Pool/AP)

Mr Imamoglu, who was mayor for just 18 days before his win was cancelled, has cast the election as a battle for democracy, insisting his victory was unfairly seized.

He said: “I believe the people of Istanbul will give the necessary response to this injustice at the polls as a result of their belief in democracy.”