Istanbul votes in ‘historic’ rerun of mayoral vote

The rerun comes weeks after Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP), won the contest in Turkey’s commercial hub by a slim margin over Binali Yildirim of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

Istanbul, Turkey – Residents of Istanbul are back at the polling stations on Sunday in a rerun of the mayoral election, which was last held about three months ago.

Voting started at 8.00am local time (05:00GMT) and will continue through 5:00pm local time (140:0GMT) in 31,342 ballot boxes across 39 districts of Istanbul.

The result of the March 31 polls was a big blow to the AK Party, which in the same local polls also lost control of the country’s capital, Ankara, and Izmir, the third largest city.

The AK Party, led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, successfully lobbied for a rerun of the Istanbul mayoral vote, after Imamoglu secured the seat with a difference of just 13,729 votes.

Imamoglu spent only 18 days in office when Turkey’s election board ordered a rerun in the country’s largest city, citing “situations which affected the result and honesty” of the polls. The decision came after the AK Party, which ran Istanbul for the past two decades, lodged an “extraordinary objection” against the result.

A country with very few swing voters, residents in Turkey have deep-rooted loyalty to their respective political choices.

Kamat, a 39-year-old AK Party supporter, said he was “glad” a new vote would be held.

“CHP cheated … so another election that isn’t rigged will be better,” Kamat, a private security worker who requested his last name not to be used, told Al Jazeera.

‘Tired of their lies’

Across the divide, similar words are echoed in support of CHP.

Zeynep, who also did not give her last name for fear of reprisal, said she was tired of the AK Party’s “lies”.

“They stole the power from Imamoglu and they’re suppressing the media and everyone to think the way they do, always,” the 61-year-old told Al Jazeera.

“I’m tired of the AK Party, I’m tired of their lies and what they’ve done to this country.”

According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at The Washington Institute, the mayoral rerun is an historic turning point in the country.

Cagaptay said never before in the history of Turkey since it became a multiparty democracy in 1950 had the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) reversed a major election outcome.

“This is the first time … the loser did not accept the outcome, they challenged what they wanted and they got a revote,” Cagaptay told Al Jazeera.

“The board really couldn’t stand under the weight of Erdogan’s political personality and bowed to him.”

Speaking on Sunday during Turkey’s first live TV debate in 17 years, Imamoglu called the rerun a “democracy fight”.

“It is a challenge of democracy… I am an elected metropolitan mayor… so this is a challenge against who has claimed our rights,” Imamoglu said.

Economic woes

With Turkey facing its first recession in a decade, the Istanbul mayoral candidates have mostly focused on unemployment, poverty and the cost of living.

According to the most recent data released by the Turkish Statistical Institute in 2017, at 970 billion Turkish liras ($166.6bn), Istanbul accounts for just over 31 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), meaning the city has an economy greater than countries such as Finland, Egypt, Portugal and Greece.

Even so, the distribution of GDP per capita has been decreasing for the past six years, squeezing many Istanbul residents.

Social media users took advantage of the live debate on Sunday to ask if the candidates would declare their worth if elected.

The AK Party’s Yildirim replied there is no such “tradition”. “But for me, there is no problem; we are ready to be accountable,” he said.

In the purpose of “honesty”, CHP’s Imamoglu said it would be a “pleasure” for him to do so.

Istanbul mayor race 2

Imamoglu’s new slogan, which translates to ‘everything will be very beautiful’, has been plastered across Istanbul in the weeks leading up to the vote Tessa Fox/ Al Jazeera

Campaign signs erected around the city over the past few weeks openly rival each other as to which side will give the best deal, or even free offers, on everyday necessities such as gas, water and transportation.

CHP promises a 40 percent reduction in water prices and that it will provide monthly support to families in need, including distribution of free milk to “poor and needy Istanbul residents”.

The AK Party has promised a better deal: a discount of 46 percent on water bills and 10 percent on gas, as well as monthly assistance for low-income families of 50 liras ($8.6) for gas and 80 liras ($13.73) for electricity bills.

‘Claiming’ ideas

Student discounts have become a major issue after Imamoglu proposed, during his 18 days in office, that the monthly transportation fee for university students should be 50 liras ($8.6).

During that time, Imamoglu began livestreaming municipality meetings, which broadcast the AK Party voting against the student transportation discount.

Istanbul Mayor race

An AK Party poster says it will give the first hour free in car parks, an example of the list of offers and ‘freebies’ both candidates are making to the people of Istanbul Tessa Fox/Al Jazeera

Ahmet Aksoy*, an English literature student and CHP supporter, was among those who followed the reactions on social media following the AK Party’s rejection.

“The next day, the AK Party proposed it be a 40-lira ($6.86) discount; that was accepted with their majority and now they’re claiming it as their own idea,” Aksoy said.

“Before the March 31 election, the AK Party didn’t make any major promises about discounts… the main issue they spoke about was peace and anti-PKK, anti-Kurdish propaganda,” he added, referring to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

FETO ties

Meanwhile, a failed coup attempt three years ago continues to be a major political and security issue.

Ankara alleges that the coup bid was orchestrated by exiled Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen. But he denies the charge. The government calls Gulen’s movement the Fethullah “Terror” Organisation (FETO).

Since the failed putsch, the Turkish government has purged and arrested Gulen’s followers from state institutions, dismissing and arresting tens of thousands of people.

During the live debate, the candidates were asked if they had ever had ties to Gulen; if they had visited any of his schools; and what they would do in the fight against FETO.

Both Yildirim and Imamoglu answered “no” several times.

Shortly afterwards, several videos of Yildirim surfaced on Twitter, some of them dating back to 2013, allegedly linking him to Gulen and participation in Gulen-organised events. He has not commented publicly on the videos.

Before the debate drew to a close, the Turkish news site Takvim published various screen captures of Imamoglu’s Twitter account dating back to 2013 and 2014, alleging he was a supporter of Gulen and his movement.

People watch a televised debate between Istanbul's mayoral candidates Imamoglu of CHP and Yildirim of AKP at a cafe in central Istanbul

People watch a televised debate between Istanbul’s mayoral candidates Ekrem Imamoglu of the CHP and Binali Yildirim of the AK Party at a cafe in central Istanbul, Turkey, June 16, 2019 File: Murad Sezer/Reuters

Ahmet, the student, said Gulen was such a big part of Turkey’s politics and economy for so long that it would be difficult for politicians not to have some association with him or his group.

“At one point, if you were ever going to get into politics here.. at some point, you would have met them,” Ahmet said.

“It makes sense strategically to say they don’t… the moment someone says yes… they’re going to attack him so I get that.”

AK Party supporter Kamat vehemently rejected the validity of Yildirim videos, saying there is no way the AK Party has ties to FETO.

“But I’m suspicious of Imamoglu having ties with FETO. Even if he doesn’t have ties to FETO, he has ties with people who support FETO,” he argued.

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