Istanbul awaits election verdict on Erdogan and Turkish democracy

Istanbul, Istanbul, TurkeyUpdated: Jun 23, 2019, 09:11 PM IST

File photo of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photograph:(AFP)

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Critics say Erdogan simply refused to give up control of Istanbul, Turkey's economic powerhouse and a crucial source of patronage for Islamic conservatives since he won the mayorship himself a quarter-century ago

Polls closed in Sunday's replay of the mayoral election in Istanbul, with voters anxiously awaiting a verdict seen as crucial to the future of Turkish democracy and its long-ruling president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Ekrem Imamoglu was a little-known district mayor who caused a huge upset when he narrowly beat the candidate of Erdogan's ruling party in March. 

Election authorities annulled that result after Erdogan claimed irregularities in the counting -- but that has only galvanised Imamoglu who vowed "a battle for democracy" to take back the city of 15 million.

Critics say Erdogan simply refused to give up control of Istanbul, Turkey's economic powerhouse and a crucial source of patronage for Islamic conservatives since he won the mayorship himself a quarter-century ago.

But being stripped of the victory has turned Imamoglu, of the secular Republican People's Party, into a household name.

"Today our people will make the best decision... for the sake of our democracy, for Istanbul and also for the legitimacy of all future elections," he said after voting.

His upbeat message under the slogan "Everything will be fine" is in contrast to the usual aggressive name-calling of Turkish politics.

The message had struck a chord among voters. 

"I'm nervous but I'm sure of the result," said one 26-year-old supporter on Sunday. "The interest in the first election was far less. Now things are different and I believe Ekrem Imamoglu will win by a big margin."

But Imamoglu faces the juggernaut of the AKP, which has ruled Turkey since 2002 and remains the most popular political force nationwide thanks to years of dramatic growth and support for previously-excluded religious conservatives. 

The AKP's candidate is Binali Yildirim, a mild-mannered Erdogan loyalist who oversaw several huge transport projects and served as prime minister.

He struck a conciliatory tone on Sunday, saying: "If we have wronged, knowingly or unknowingly, one of our fellow Istanbulites or our challengers, if we have done something unjust, I ask for your forgiveness," he said.

Results of the vote are expected Sunday evening. 

- 'Lose-lose situation' -

Analysts say that the re-run is a lose-lose proposition for Erdogan: a second defeat would undermine his image of invincibility and embolden rivals within his party, while a victory would forever be seen by the opposition as stolen.

It comes as an economic slump and rising prices have dented his reputation for economic stewardship, with the AKP also losing the capital Ankara in March. 

For many conservatives, Erdogan remains a hero who brought prosperity and has fiercely defended the country's interests.

Most accept the line that the re-run was necessary.

"If there's something like stolen votes, I think it's better to re-do the election in the name of democracy," said 45-year-old Huseyin as he queued to cast his ballot.

Erdogan maintained his allegations of irregularities as he voted on Sunday, saying the last election "should not have happened like that". 

But the controversy over the re-run may explain his relative silence, with no repeat of the tireless rallying for the March polls, which included 102 appearances in just 50 days.

Erdogan has downplayed the importance of the re-run, saying last week that the choice of mayor was "only a change in the shop window" since the AKP controls almost two-thirds of the city's districts.

Fearing fraud, the opposition has mobilised an army of lawyers from across Turkey to monitor Sunday's election, with the Istanbul Bar Association unfurling a huge banner at their headquarters that reads: "Stand guard for democracy". 

"I have always a doubt in the corner of my mind that they would not replay this election for nothing. Anything is possible from the other side," said an Imamoglu supporter.

- The Kurdish factor -

The AKP has gone to great lengths to rally conservative voters who abstained in March. 

It has also tried to win over Kurds, who number in the millions in Istanbul and have been angered by the crackdown on Kurdish activists in recent years. 

Yildirim travelled to one of the main Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir this month and uttered the word "Kurdistan" -- a taboo in Turkey.

There have even been signs of dialogue with the jailed leader of the Kurdish insurgency, Abdullah Ocalan, who this week called on the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party to remain neutral in the election, though it has continued to back Imamoglu.