First TV debate in nearly two decades ahead of Istanbul election re-run

People watch a political debate between Turkish ruling party Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate for Istanbul Mayor Binali Yildirim and Republican People's Party 'CHP' candidate for Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu for re-run Istanbul's Municipality elections on 23 June in Istanbul, Turkey, 16 June 2019. [Sedat Suna/EPA/EFE]

The two candidates for the re-run of the mayoral election in Istanbul met in the first live television debate in 17 years on Sunday (16 June). The re-run will be held on 23 June. The event was broadcast on all major channels and watched by millions, with big TV screens also installed in the streets.

The loss of Istanbul, Turkey’s financial hub, on 31 March, was a major blow for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who campaigned hard ahead of the vote. On 16 April Erdoğan submitted his AK party’s appeal for the annulment and rerun of the poll over what it said were irregularities.

Erdogan's party submits appeal for rerun of Istanbul elections

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party on Tuesday (16 April) submitted its promised appeal for the annulment and rerun of Istanbul’s municipal elections, over what it said were irregularities that marred the March 31 vote.

Live political face-to-face debate is a rare moment for Turkish people who are constantly overwhelmed by pro-government propaganda. The last political debate on Turkish television was in October 2002 between Erdoğan – when he competed for the first time for the premiership – and Deniz Baykal, then chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The candidate of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Binali Yıldırım and the opposition’s leader Ekrem Imamoğlu from CHP debated for three hours covering questions regarding the economy, unemployment and immigration issue.

The event followed strict rules, with both candidates asked the same questions and given equal time to answer.

The issue of repeating the election was the main topic of discussion. The voting on 31 March, won by the opposition by a narrow margin of 13,000 votes, was cancelled in May by the High Election Council. It was a shocking defeat for the AKP, which had run Ankara and Istanbul since 1994.

The AKP’s candidate repeated his party’s accusation that votes had been stolen. “Strange thing happened when your votes were counted,” Yıldırım said in the debate.

That was dismissed as slander by CHP’s leader who referred to the High Election Board report, which did not mention anything about stolen votes.

Imamoğlu also focused on the TV coverage of the election by state-run Anadolu Agency, which stopped broadcasting the vote count as it turned in his favour.

“Why did Anadolu Agency cut the data? Why for 12 hours the data was not announced? It was very clear they didn’t like this process,” Imamoğlu said.

The CHP’s leader presented the election as a struggle for democracy, normalisation and clean administration. “It’s a fight for democracy against those who violated our rights and the rights of 16 million people,’’ Imamoğlu said.

The second hot issue of the debate was the question of the Kurdish voters. Kurds represent 15% of Istanbul’s inhabitants and were the majority of non-voters in the March elections.

The CHP candidate said he wants to avoid polarization in society and would serve every citizen of Istanbul equally.

The AKP’s candidate added that he will not make any differences between the citizens of other religion and ethnicity. In AKP’s strategy for the rerun, Erdoğan took a step back from his anti-Kurdish rhetoric and hinted at a possible opening of peace talks after the election.

In comparison with the campaign ahead of the March election, Erdoğan has kept his distance. Even so, the election in Turkey’s biggest city are an important political test. A victory of the opposition would challenge the dominance of the AK party.

An opinion poll based on questioning more than 30,000 city residents after the debate showed that 46% of respondents said Imamoğlu was the strongest performer, against 44% for Yıldırım. It also suggested that the CHP candidate could get the support of 65% of those who didn’t vote in the March election.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Benjamin Fox]

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