By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Istanbul’s mayoral candidates argued over the election they contested in March and their policy plans in a rare televised debate on Sunday, a week before a re-run vote seen as a test of Turkish democracy and President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK party.
In the first debate of its kind in Turkey in nearly two decades, AKP candidate Binali Yildirim faced the opposition’s Ekrem Imamoglu, who won the initial vote in March but was ousted from city hall when the result was annulled in May.
Yildirim, a former prime minister, narrowly lost the contest in what was one of the biggest election setbacks for Erdogan since the AKP first came to power in 2002. His party also lost control of the capital Ankara.
But in a decision last month that raised new questions over Turkey’s institutional independence, the High Election Board scheduled the re-run on June 23 after a series of AKP complaints that the initial vote was marred by irregularities.
“Strange thing happened when your votes were counted,” Yildirim said on Sunday, describing the March contest. “Votes were stolen,” he said, without naming any culprit.
“Who stole votes for God’s sake?” responded Imamoglu, of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), saying the election board had made no such allegation in its decision to annul the vote.
“We are conducting a struggle for democracy,” Imamoglu said during heated exchanges. “It is a struggle for Istanbul, for normalisation, for a clean administration free of arrogance.”
The three-hour event, which ranged from Turkey’s economic troubles and the large numbers of migrants in Istanbul to the shortage of green spaces in the city of 15 million, was broadcast on all major channels. Large screens were also set up in the streets.
CHANGE IN CAMPAIGNSTRATEGY
The country’s last prominent televised debate between political leaders was in October 2002, when Erdogan faced then-CHP chairman Deniz Baykal a week before the parliamentary election that marked the AKP’s breakthrough.
The party’s campaign for this month’s contest is vastly different from the lead-up to the March 31 vote when Erdogan delivered tough nationalist messages at mass rallies each day. This time he is keeping a low profile.
In a speech on Sunday, he questioned why foreign media were so interested in “just a mayor being elected”, stressing that the city council was dominated by his AK Party.
Opinion polls have consistently shown Imamoglu leading, in some cases by several percentage points.
The rebooted AKP campaign has focused on Yildirim and a more conciliatory tone as it seeks to win over voters who have deserted the party and its nationalist MHP party allies.
Erdogan launched his own political career as Istanbul mayor before leading the AK Party to power. The AKP and its Islamist predecessors had controlled Istanbul and Ankara for 25 years before March’s electoral defeats.
The election is being closely watched in financial markets, with the political uncertainty weighing on the lira, which was hit by a crisis last year and is still under pressure due to Turkey’s fraying ties with the United States.
Final results from the March election showed the CHP’s Imamoglu earning 48.80% of votes, while Yildirim had 48.55%.
(Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, John Stonestreet and Sonya Hepinstall)