Erdogan challenger’s political career at risk after court ruling

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Turkey on Wednesday convicted Istanbul’s high-profile mayor of insulting election officials, jeopardizing his potential election bid against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A court in Istanbul sentenced Ekrem Imamoglu to two years and seven months in prison. If the verdict is upheld by higher appeal courts, it will result in a political ban for Imamoglu, the most popular political figure who can challenge Erdogan in elections scheduled for June.

Until the higher courts’ decision on Wednesday’s verdict, Imamoglu remains the mayor.

Investors sold Turkish assets after the court’s decision, with the benchmark Borsa Istanbul 100 index closing 3.6 percent on the day. The lira declined as much as 0.2 percent against the US dollar. Five-year credit default swaps, which measure the cost of insuring against possible default on Turkish debt, rose to 508, the biggest jump in more than a week.

The spat between the mayor and Turkey’s president goes back to the 2019 local elections, where Imamoglu took Turkey’s largest city from Erdogan in a stunning victory for the main opposition party CHP. Erdogan’s own political ascent had begun in the same city 25 years earlier and he took the electoral loss in Istanbul personally.

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council canceled Imamoglu’s first electoral victory amid heavy influence from Erdogan’s aides. The mayor won the repeat vote with a landslide.

The latest court decision will have a similar impact on public sentiment, Imamoglu said.

“The powers given to us by the nation can’t be taken away by a few. God willing, our fight will become more powerful, Halk TV cited the mayor as saying.

Opposition rallying

Opposition leaders, including CHP’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Iyi Party’s Meral Aksener, threw their full support behind Imamoglu, who’s called for a rally in front of the main municipal building in Istanbul’s Sarachane district.

Thousands of people showed up after Imamoglu’s call, waving Turkish flags and chanting slogans in support of the mayor.

“This verdict is aimed at preventing Imamoglu from running for president in the elections, said 48-year-old Nuri Kirik as he waited for Imamoglu to address the crowd.

The mayor is accused of insulting members of the election council for comments he made in November 2019, months after his win against Erdogan. He denies wrongdoing and has accused the Turkish president of using “the law as a weapon against his political opponents.

“Those who canceled the election on March 31 are the fools, Imamoglu said at the time, that were viewed by the authorities as an insult against election board judges.

What’s next

Istanbul municipality’s city council, dominated by Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, will elect a new mayor unless Imamoglu’s conviction is overturned.

Imamoglu remains a popular political figure nationally and is seen by credible pollsters as having a real shot at defeating Erdogan if he were to run for president. That said, the mayor has refrained from explicitly voicing such ambitions.

Turkey’s opposition alliance has yet to announce a joint candidate for the elections scheduled to take place in six months.

The president is stepping up pressure on the opposition ahead of the vote.

Earlier this year, a top appeals court upheld a jail term of nearly five years for another key CHP figure, Canan Kaftancioglu, on charges of insulting Erdogan. Kaftancioglu was seen as an architect of Imamoglu’s victory in Istanbul.

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