Political ban is ‘axe to democracy’, says Turkish opposition leader

A potential challenger for the Turkish presidency before a court ban last month threw his political future in doubt has said Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party would “suffer a heavy defeat” for attempting to thwart democracy.

Ekrem İmamoğlu, mayor of Istanbul, has led opinion polls against Turkey’s longest-serving leader whose popularity has slumped during a painful economic crisis. İmamoğlu never said he would run, but a December ruling that sentenced him to nearly three years in prison and barred him from politics for the duration may upend the election and any such aspirations.

His supporters say the ban is aimed at clearing the field of possible rivals to Erdoğan before the presidential and parliamentary vote. They also believe this could backfire by angering voters and driving support to an alliance of opposition parties, with or without İmamoğlu as its nominee.

“They are taking an axe to democracy, literally denying people’s freedom to choose,” İmamoğlu told the Financial Times. Voters “will respond to this deprivation at the ballot box in the 2023 elections, and this government will suffer a heavy defeat.”

The mayor remains in office pending an appeal, and Turkish election rules allow him to compete until he exhausts his legal chances. The alliance of six parties, led by İmamoğlu’s centre-right Republican People’s party (CHP), now faces a dilemma over whether to nominate him anyway only to risk losing its candidate just before the vote.

The election is set to be Erdoğan’s toughest after two decades in power. Raging inflation, rising poverty and a crackdown on political opponents have cooled voters towards his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP). İmamoğlu draws support from a diverse range of voters, including Kurds, secularists and religious conservatives disaffected with the AKP.

“This election was primarily going to be about the economy, but the court ruling could turn it into a David versus Goliath matchup,” said Emre Peker, Europe director at consultancy Eurasia Group. “It makes İmamoğlu an even stronger figure by galvanising the opposition over what looks like a significant political intervention.”

İmamoğlu, 52, burst on to the scene in 2019 when he narrowly defeated Erdoğan’s candidate for mayor of Turkey’s biggest city. The AKP alleged voter fraud, and the result was invalidated, forcing İmamoğlu to repeat the election, which he won by a landslide.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the opposition of exploiting the court verdict to score political points © Presidential Press Office/Reuters

The loss was especially bitter for Erdoğan, 68, whose own career took off after he became Istanbul mayor two decades ago. İmamoğlu said he believes his prosecution emerged from “the great trauma the government suffered from losing Istanbul”.

His trial began two years after he allegedly called the state election board that cancelled his first win “idiots”. The court dismissed his defence that it was in response to interior minister Süleyman Soylu, who had called him an “idiot” first.

Lawyers for İmamoğlu said the appeals process normally spans months or years but could be accelerated to conclude as early as April. The mayor is not expected to serve jail time because his sentence would be converted to probation.

Erdoğan has denied meddling in the case. “No one can question our commitment to democracy and legitimate political methods,” he said, as he accused the opposition of exploiting the verdict to score political points.

Yet Erdoğan’s critics point to politically charged trials that have knocked out previous rivals. Selahattin Demirtaş, who ran against Erdoğan for the presidency when he was chair of the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), has been in prison for six years after he was convicted of terrorism charges for his political speeches.

Turkey’s top court last week cut off state funding to the HDP, the country’s third-biggest party, and is considering outlawing it for alleged links to Kurdish militants. Almost all of the HDP’s mayors have been replaced with state-appointed trustees.

“You don’t have to look at my case alone to see how extremely politicised the judiciary has become and how this has disrupted our democracy,” said İmamoğlu. “There is an authoritarian mentality in Turkey that sees no problem dictating to the relevant institutions the way it wants life to take shape. They do not want to see anyone who will challenge them.”

Supporters of İmamoğlu gather in Istanbul
Supporters of İmamoğlu gather in Istanbul after the mayor was sentenced to nearly three years in jail for allegedly insulting election officials © Onur Dogman /SOPA Images/Reuters

Recent polling by research firm MetroPoll showed İmamoğlu was still able to beat Erdoğan despite the court verdict and that a plurality of voters believe the case against him was politically motivated.

The opposition bloc, which includes nationalists and conservatives, has struggled to agree on a joint candidate, and Eurasia Group’s Peker said internal rivalries could yet derail Imamoglu’s presidential ambitions even without the ban. CHP chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, 74, has put himself forth as the best candidate to hold the shaky alliance together.

Yet İmamoğlu, unlike the other contenders, has a winning record against the AKP. Gülçin Karabağ, a political scientist, said that while Erdoğan’s grip on Turkey and hard-nosed political tactics “make him the playmaker in this election,” İmamoğlu had “passed the stress test”.

“Political bans come and go in Turkey, and our political history shows that this can make politicians shine brighter,” she said.

Erdoğan’s own tenure as mayor was cut short when he was jailed in 1999 for inciting religious hatred in a poem he recited. Three years later, the AKP swept to power.

At a rally the day the court verdict against him was pronounced, İmamoğlu quoted Erdoğan when he was confronted with the same fate all those years ago. “‘One day justice will come, and those who have politicised the judiciary will find they need it too’,” he said.

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