Istanbul opposition mayor facing jail after government campaign

Ekrem Imamoglu. (Photo/Twitter)
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  • Ekrem Imamoglu’s surging popularity poses threat to Turkish rulers
  • Months-long targeting of opponents reveals weakness of authorities, experts say

ANKARA: Istanbul mayor and Turkish opposition figure Ekrem Imamoglu is facing a prison sentence following a months-long investigation campaign by authorities who fear his surging popularity poses a threat to their rule.

As a young and ambitious political player trying to heal divides, Imamoglu has spread a message of unity in the Turkish capital based on his campaign slogan, “Everything is going to be great.”

In early May, he faced an investigation over “disrespectful” behavior during a visit to a shrine of an Ottoman sultan, where he was pictured with his hands folded behind his back.

Another investigation examined his opposition to the government’s Kanal Istanbul megaproject, a planned artificial waterway linking the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea. The Istanbul mayor has warned that the project will benefit only a handful of people and companies.

Now, Turkish prosecutors are seeking a four-year jail term for Imamoglu for allegedly insulting election authorities in a speech he delivered after the cancellation of the first round of local elections in March 2019.

In the speech, he claimed that the cancellation had harmed Turkey’s international prestige, labeling the decision “irrational.”

Voters finally went to the ballot boxes in June that year for the re-run of the vote following the cancellation, which was pushed through over allegations of fraud by the ruling Justice and Development Party.

The new case surrounding Imamoglu has been accepted by an Istanbul court and is awaiting examination.

Prof. Murat Somer, a political scientist from Koc University in Istanbul, said the anti-Imamoglu campaign represents “unconstitutional attempts by the ruling authoritarian bloc” to “stay in power through undemocratic means,” which have increased amid waning public support.

“What is even more damaging to the government is that the opposition has been growing stronger by uniting in electoral alliances and in an emerging ‘democracy bloc,’” he said.

In response, the ruling coalition “has been increasing efforts to use oppression and a politics of fear to stay in power, as it has done so in the past when it lost majority support,” he added.

According to the latest polls, Imamoglu, who has governed Turkey’s largest city since June 2019, still stands as the strongest potential candidate against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the election scheduled for 2023.

Somer said that investigations and trials should be considered part of a larger authoritarian campaign by authorities, which includes government-endorsed mob violence against opposition party leaders, unconstitutional bans of demonstrations, removal and illegal replacement of elected mayors with government-appointed trustees, and numerous court cases and imprisonments of critics.

“These growing oppressive attempts seem clearly linked with recent surveys. In addition, they may be aimed at suppressing growing internal strife inside the authoritarian bloc, which was recently displayed by YouTube testimonies of a mafia leader linked with the government,” he said.

However, Somer added that the strategy could backfire, as it creates an image of government weakness and desperation in the eyes of critics, as well as supporters.

“If the opposition acts in unity, remains committed to democracy and law and continues to build its image up as a promising reformist alternative, public pressure for an early election may mount and prospects for a change in power may increase,” he said.

Canan Kaftancioglu, Istanbul chair of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and close ally of Imamoglu, has also faced indictments for “terror propaganda” and “provoking public hatred” for more than two years. She is now facing a potential prison sentence of almost 10 years.

Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University, said that prosecutorial harassment of opposition figures has become a “sad constant” of Turkish political life in recent years.

“Some of this is centrally planned, while other parts, I suspect, come from individual prosecutors attempting to demonstrate their loyalty to the government,” he told Arab News.

Eissenstat added that the Imamoglu prosecution is “part of a larger whole” in which the government is using its control of the judiciary to harass and silence the opposition.

“So far, the real target of this has been the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, but this new investigation is part of a broadening campaign of pressure against the CHP.”