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Facing defeat, Erdogan intervenes against opposition candidate in Istanbul

The Turkish president has been noticeably absent from this campaign, but as Imamoglu appears to pull away that has changed
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stands prior to casting his ballot at a polling station during the now-annulled municipal elections in Istanbul, on 31 March (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Istanbul

After weeks of absence, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan descended into the Istanbul election fray by directly addressing locals and using harsh rhetoric against the opposition’s mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu.

With Binali Yildrim, the former prime minister and ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) candidate, behind Imamoglu in almost every poll, the gloves came off on Wednesday, with Erdogan seeking to link the CHP candidate to Turkish bete noir Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Jailed pro-Kurdish leader Demirtas throws weight behind opposition Istanbul candidate
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“Are you going to vote for our candidate Binali Yildirim or Sisi? ” he asked during a meeting, invoking the memories of the 2016 coup attempt that the Turkish government suggests Sisi supported.

Erdogan also said a court decision against Imamoglu, who allegedly insulted a local governor, could block him from assuming the office.

The difference was stark.

Since the Turkish Supreme Election Board (YSK) annulled the March mayoral election last month and scheduled a new one for this Sunday on charges of unlawful staffing of polling stations, Erdogan has kept a low profile.

He has been mostly silent about Imamoglu, whose mayorship lasted for just 15 days after winning the original election by merely 13,000 votes. More than 10 million Istanbul residents are eligible to vote.

Ekrem Imamoglu has begun pulling away in the polls ahead of the Istanbul election re-run (AFP)
Ekrem Imamoglu has begun pulling away in the polls ahead of the Istanbul election re-run (AFP)

Several sources close to the ruling party, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Middle East Eye that the new campaign has deliberately focused on Yildirim alone as the candidate. For example, the party’s political ads on billboards only featured Yildirim, not with Erdogan as in the past.

“Instead of using polarising language like forcing people to make a choice based on ‘the survival of the nation’, the new strategy focused on promises such as social aid for poorer segments of society, transportation problems and a new vision for Istanbul,” a source said.

The party also funnelled local leaders from different parts of Turkey to Istanbul in an attempt to convince disaffected AKP voters to support Yildirim. The former prime minister also travelled to Diyarbakir to woo Kurdish voters, who could help swing the vote, by describing parts of Turkey as Kurdistan.

Enter Erdogan

Now it appears Erdogan has partly amended that strategy. The reason is quite clear, his absence hasn't helped much: sources said several polls conducted by the AKP show Imamoglu holding at least a four percentage point advantage over Yildrim.

Mehmet Acet, a prominent columnist with government-aligned Yeni Safak daily, said Erdogan was focusing on getting Islamist-leaning Felicity Party (SP) support. The SP's candidate won 103,000 votes in the annulled election.

'Erdogan believes he needs to be present in public rallies to galvanise his own support base'

- Mehmet Acet, columnist

“Erdogan believes he needs to be present in public rallies to galvanise his own support base, the conservative backbone of the party,” he told Middle East Eye. “His meetings this week are all about reaching out to conservatives, Turks and Kurds alike, to vote for his candidate.”

Yildirim, like his boss, is trying to do the same. He visited the Milli Gazete daily on Tuesday, a newspaper closely affiliated with the Felicity Party.

“We have the same values and lifestyle. We shouldn’t be separate. If we broke hearts, if we had some wrongdoings, I apologise to my Felicity Party supporter brother and sisters,” Yildirim told an audience at the newspaper, according to a video circulating on social media.

However, many believe the score is already settled. Respected Istanbul-based polling company Konda on Wednesday announced that Imamoglu had a nine-point lead. In a meeting with journalists on Thursday, Erdogan cast doubt on Konda's results, calling the poll fake.

Bekir Agirdir, the general manager of Konda, said this week that Erdogan was again using polarising rhetoric as a last-ditch effort to collect more votes.

“The AKP isn’t credible anymore. Our estimate is that up to three percent of AKP voters who are outraged by the YSK’s decision to cancel [the] election won't go to the polls,” he said.

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