New case against Istanbul mayor another setback for Turkiye’s fractured opposition

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Turkiye’s opposition, still reeling from election defeat to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suffered a fresh blow to its prospects of renewal on Thursday as a court began hearing a case against one of its brightest stars on a tender-rigging charge.

The case against Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu began less than three weeks after Erdogan defied poll predictions and the hopes of his opponents to win a presidential runoff vote, extending his more than two-decade rule.

Imamoglu faces a potential jail sentence of three to seven years and a political ban if found guilty in the latest case, having already been sentenced to more than two years in prison in 2022 for insulting public officials. He also faces a political ban if that ruling is upheld.

His case on Thursday was adjourned to Nov. 30 and the trial is set to hang over the opposition as it tries to regroup and rally disheartened voters ahead of local elections in March.

At the same time, calls have grown louder for the opposition’s defeated presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu to resign as chairman of Imamoglu’s Republican People’s Party or CHP.

While Kilicdaroglu has refused to openly say whether he will stand as a candidate in the party congress in the autumn, he appeared to suggest that he may step down after 13 years at the helm of Turkiye’s oldest party.

“I will open the way fully for change, don’t you worry,” he told his party’s parliamentary group on Tuesday. “It is the captain’s duty to take the ship safely back to port,” Kilicdaroglu added, suggesting he could keep the reins for a while longer.

Many see Imamoglu, who has called for “total change,” as the strongest contender to replace Kilicdaroglu.

“We can’t make the mistake of doing the same things and continuing on our path,” Imamoglu told reporters last week, citing the CHP’s losses in the last three presidential election.

But others are also vying for Kilicdaroglu’s position and the decision will depend on who can rally more support within the party.

Tanju Tosun, political science professor at Ege University, said the CHP’s internal politics could overshadow its preparations for next year’s local elections.

“If the internal rifts within the CHP continues until local elections, candidates from the ruling AK Party (AKP) could defeat opposition candidates in many cities,” he said.

Imamoglu shot to the center of domestic politics after he won the 2019 mayoral elections in Istanbul, delivering Erdogan’s AKP their biggest defeat since they came to power in 2002.

Erdogan’s critics say he has bent Turkish courts to his will and many see the cases against Imamoglu as an attempt to hinder him politically. Erdogan and his AK Party deny this.

Kemal Polat, a lawyer for Imamoglu, said the claims in Thursday’s tender rigging case, related to his time as mayor of Beylikduzu district, were baseless and could be used by politicians.

“The indictment that is prepared is empty judicially. The investigation into the acts described in the indictment were lifted by the Council of State,” Polat said.

As Imamoglu’s five-year term draws to a close, the CHP and other opposition parties it cooperated with in 2019 to secure the victory in Istanbul will also need to decide whether they will unite again for local elections scheduled for March 2024.

Last month’s defeat, including a weaker-than-expected showing for the center nationalist IYI Party in parliamentary elections, complicates the prospects of another partnership.

Reports have suggested that IYI Party may request the CHP support its candidate in some metropolitan cities like in 2019, but in CHP strongholds this time.

In 2019, the CHP endorsed IYI Party candidates in the western cities of Balikesir and Denizli, but they failed to beat AKP candidates at the time.

The role of pro-Kurdish Green Left Party or YSP also remains key for victory in local elections after they helped the CHP claim Istanbul and Ankara in 2019 by not fielding candidates.

But party officials have suggested they may not follow that strategy next year after they suffered a drop in their votes in last month’s elections.

“YSP may field candidates (in Istanbul and Ankara),” Meral Danis Bestas, a senior YSP official, said.

“We’ve received tough criticisms from our party base for not fielding a candidate in the presidential elections.”

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