By Daren Butler and Birsen Altayli
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Istanbul’s ousted mayor says he will go into battle for Turkish democracy next month when he stands in a re-run of an election he thought had granted him the city to govern for five years.
Ekrem Imamoglu is confident he will win again on June 23, despite what he calls the theft of the narrow victory he won in March over President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party, but for him there are also bigger issues at stake.
“The Istanbul election has become a symbol for democracy, we can see that. We have a responsibility to democracy as great as our responsibility to Istanbul,” he told Reuters on Thursday in an interview.
Imamoglu had been in office for less than three weeks when, on Monday – after a series of appeals by Erdogan and the AKP – the High Election Board (YSK) annulled the vote and called a re-run, citing irregularities in the appointment of polling station officials.
A former businessman, Imamoglu previously served for five years as the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) mayor in Beylikduzu, a middle-class district on the city’s western outskirts.
On Thursday he was back in that neighbourhood, launching his second campaign against former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who he just beat in the first vote on March 31.
Until then, the AKP and its Islamist predecessors had governed Turkey’s largest city for 25 years, presiding over its close-to $4 billion budget.
Erdogan, the most dominant figure in national politics since the modern Turkish state’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, launched his own political career as Istanbul mayor before his AK Party won national elections in 2002.
Imamoglu, 48, said that, in his brief time at city hall, he had uncovered high levels of wastefulness, which he would highlight to voters over the next month and a half.
He said more than 100,000 volunteers had so far come forward to assist with his campaign, which will also focus on developing alternative ways of communicating his message in the face of an overwhelmingly pro-government media.
During his time in government, Erdogan has progressively extended his party’s influence over areas of Turkish society including the media, while consolidating his power with the introduction of an executive presidency last year.
Imamoglu said his campaign would be similar to the one he ran for the March election, focusing on a positive message and steering clear of the combative style common in Turkish politics.
He said the experience of the annulment had not changed him and his anger was only focused on those responsible for the decision.
“Our campaign has started. We will again be smiling, with warmth and sincerity,” he said. “But I am of course angry at a handful of people who have …dealt democracy the biggest blow.”
Erdogan’s critics at home and abroad have voiced concerns about the rule of law and the resilience of the country’s institutions, and investors shifted out of Turkish assets after the election annulment.
But Imamoglu retains confidence in the country’s political outlook. “Democracy will not end,” he said. “Turkey’s conscience and feeling of justice will bring this country to democracy. That is why I have no fear at all.”
His success in dealing a high-profile election blow to Erdogan has led to speculation about his long-term political ambitions.
The two men have some things in common. Aside from their mayoral experience, both have family roots in the Black Sea region.
But Imamoglu steered clear of commenting on his future plans. “All I am thinking about now is to put right the theft which democracy was subjected to, to give Istanbul the government it deserves,” he said.
(Reporting by Daren Butler; editing by John Stonestreet)