By Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu
ANKARA (Reuters) – Istanbul’s ousted opposition mayor is leading President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party candidate by three percentage points ahead of next month’s re-run mayoral election, according to an opinion poll conducted for the AKP campaign.
The president’s party is seeking to reverse a dramatic and narrow loss to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu in March, one of the biggest election setbacks to Erdogan’s 16-year hold on power.
Authorities annulled the result after AKP complaints of irregularities, ending Imamoglu’s mayoral term after less than three weeks and calling a new election for June 23.
The poll is broadly in line with other surveys of voter intentions in recent days in Turkey’s largest city and commercial hub, which has been ruled by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors for the last 25 years.
“There were polls where Imamoglu was further ahead, but according to the latest poll conducted by our party, Imamoglu is three points ahead,” an AKP official told Reuters on Thursday.
AKP officials hope that Erdogan, a veteran of more than a dozen election victories, can turn the vote in favour of their candidate, former prime minister Binali Yildirim.
But he will be campaigning in the depths of an economic recession that has eroded support for his party.
Senior AKP officials, including ministers, are already “camped” in the city two weeks before the start of campaigning.
Party officials have said Erdogan may also need a change of tone after a bitter and confrontational AKP campaign failed to achieve victory in March.
“It will be a much nicer and milder campaign,” a source close to the AKP said. “Erdogan will increasingly put weight on Istanbul in the coming days as the vote approaches. Yildirim has a chance.”
Mehmet Ali Kulat, chairman of pro-government pollster MAK, said Imamoglu had a two-point lead over Yildirim, partly because of public unease at the cancellation of the March 31 vote result.
Key to next month’s re-run, Kulat said, would be Kurdish voters in Istanbul. Kurds formed the majority of non-voters in the March ballot, which had an 85% turnout.
The pro-Kurdish HDP party has not put up a candidate in Istanbul, leaving most Kurds to vote for Imamoglu. It has also indicated that it would support Imamoglu in June, but the AKP also attracts some Kurdish support and will be seeking to build on that next month.
“Their (Kurdish voters) stance will be critical,” Kulat said. Kurds make up around 15% of Istanbul’s population of more than 15 million.
Suleyman Celebi, a lawmaker for the CHP in Istanbul, said the party would not seek a special approach to win over Kurdish voters, but would be trying to maximise support across the city.
Final results from the March mayoral election showed the CHP’s Imamoglu earning 48.80% of votes, while Yildirim had 48.55%.
CHP Deputy Chairman Onursal Adiguzel said his party would not ease up just because opinion polls showed Imamoglu ahead.
“We are racing against a candidate who uses all of the state’s resources and the president, so we will not act based on polls,” Adiguzel told Reuters.
(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Ece Toksabay and Frances Kerry)