Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied any suggestion a political ban on rival Ekrem Imamoglu would have an impact on the nation’s politics.
Erdogan made his remarks in response to domestic and international criticism surrounding the recent conviction of Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul. The latter was accused of insulting public officials during a mayoral race in 2019. Imamoglu was sentenced last week to slightly more than two years and seven months in prison. He is expected to appeal. Additionally, a political ban could lead to his removal from office and prevent him from standing in elections set for next June.
The U.S. Department of State said in a statement that it was “deeply troubled and disappointed” by the court’s verdict against the mayor. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement that Imamoglu’s conviction “is inconsistent with respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law.”
Speaking in the southeastern capital city of Mardin on December 18, Erdogan said he had no influence on the court’s judgment and that the “trial continues” until a court of appeals weighs in.
“What is behind the storm sparked by a verdict these past few days? This debate has nothing to do with me or with our nation. There is neither a political discussion, nor a battle of ideas, nor a struggle for service,” Erdogan said.
Those claims are misleading.
Imamoglu’s prosecution has direct implications for Turkey, as the mayor of Istanbul is considered Erdogan’s top political rival and a projected front-runner in the presidential elections in June.
“Secular and liberal” Imamoglu emerged as a “rising political star and the greatest rival to date of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a U.S.-based research group, (FDD) wrote in June 2019 after Imamoglu’s victory in the mayoral race over an Erdogan-favored candidate.
Imamoglu won the mayoral elections in Istanbul twice: first in the original contest, then again in a re-run that Turkey’s Election Board ordered after it canceled the results of the first race, citing technical errors.
The mayorship of Istanbul “challenged” Erdogan’s “air of invincibility” with the impressive electoral victory, according to the analysis, which also predicted the mayor would challenge Erdogan’s “ability to rule Turkey with an iron fist.”
The FDD also predicted that Erdogan would use his power over Turkish courts in dealing with the challenge.
“Erdogan has a track record of seizing municipalities and jailing political rivals – such as Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic co-leader of the progressive Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – on frivolous charges.”
Following the sentencing, Turkey’s High Election Board said that even if Imamoglu wins the case in the court of appeals, then runs and wins in the June presidential elections, he still may not be able to assume the presidency due to the political ban.
“He may run in elections but cannot get his mandate as a president even if he wins,” Bloomberg reported on December 17, citing Muharrem Akkaya, the head of Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council.
In Istanbul, thousands rallied on December 15 in protest of the mayor’s conviction and political ban. Speaking to the crowd, Imamoglu promised to fight for the presidency.
“You beat them two times already and you’ll do it again. All 16 million Istanbulites, our nation, and our big Turkey alliance is behind me. We will change this order in the election next year,” he said.
Imamoglu is backed by an opposition alliance of six political parties. The so-called “Table of Six” was formed in 2021 to present a challenge to Erdogan’s AKP party in the 2023 election.
Erdogan has been the president of Turkey since 2003. He has been criticized for legal reforms that critics say have transformed the country into an autocracy, including the imposition of strict religious regulations, tightening the government’s grip on the media and restricting free speech.