Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu defeated President Recep’s ally Tayyip Erdogan in a controversial 2019 vote – Copyright AFP Wojtek RADWANSKI
Istanbul’s popular opposition mayor faced new hearings on Wednesday in a politically charged trial that could prevent him from running months before next year’s general election.
Prosecutors want to sentence Ekrem Imamoglu to between 15 months and four years in prison for a comment he made after defeating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ally in a highly controversial 2019 mayoral election.
People sentenced to less than four years are rarely imprisoned in Turkey.
But a conviction would disqualify Imamoglu, one of the brightest stars in Turkey’s main secular party, from politics while the sentence lasts.
Imamoglu would go on to serve as Istanbul’s mayor while his appeal almost certainly made its way through the courts.
The mayor’s team sees the trial as Erdogan’s personal vendetta against one of his biggest rivals.
“Despite everything, I want to trust the judges, the prosecutors and the decision makers,” he said on the eve of Wednesday’s third hearing in the trial.
The case stems from an off-the-cuff comment Imamoglu made to reporters a few months after defeating Erdogan’s ally in a new election held after his first victory was overturned.
Officials reported uncovering hundreds of thousands of “suspicious votes” after Erdogan refused to acknowledge Imamoglu’s initial victory in a city he himself ran before entering national politics two decades ago.
The decision failed badly in Erdogan’s party with Islamic roots.
Waves of protest and a surge of support from all political corners handed Imamoglu a landslide victory in a new vote in June.
Imamoglu let his frustration over the whole episode spill over a few months later by calling the people who annulled the first vote “idiots.”
The Prosecutor’s Office has charged the mayor with the crime of “insulting” public officials.
Imamoglu has not personally attended the hearings and there has been no indication how long the trial might last.
– Opposition divided –
Imamoglu’s possible disqualification from politics comes as Turkey’s opposition parties are still wrangling over who should oppose Erdogan in next June’s presidential election.
The Istanbul mayor is among a handful of opposition leaders who, according to polls, could beat Erdogan in a head-to-head race.
Erdogan’s dominance in Turkish politics has been rocked by an economic crisis made worse by his unconventional approach to interest rates.
But more recent polls show Erdogan’s ratings beginning to pick up thanks to his widely praised handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This puts even more pressure on the opposition to put aside their personal rivalries in the election campaign.
Imamoglu’s CHP party is led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a former leftist civil servant who generally fares poorly in opinion polls.
The CHP has been holding roundtable talks with five smaller allies over a single candidate who would not split the vote against Erdogan.
Those talks have been mired in arguments over politics and general malaise about putting up Kilicdaroglu instead of someone more likely to beat Erdogan.
Imamoglu’s legal troubles have effectively disqualified him from the race.
He told reporters this week that Kilicdaroglu was the CHP’s only possible candidate.
“But at the end of the day it is up to the round table to make a decision on a single candidate,” Imamoglu said.