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Candidates for Istanbul Mayor Hold Rare Debate on Live TV

ISTANBUL — In a rare democratic experience for Turkish citizens, the two main candidates for mayor of Istanbul, gearing up for a repeat election on June 23, went head to head Sunday evening in the first live television debate the country has seen in 17 years.

The debate pitted Binali Yildirim, the government-backed candidate and former prime minister, against Ekrem Imamoglu, a district mayor who, supported by an alliance of opposition parties, has been leading in the polls.

Mr. Imamoglu won the popular vote in Istanbul in March by a narrow margin — 13,000 votes — a result that the governing party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan contested until the country’s High Election Council ordered a do-over in a much-criticized decision.

The two candidates, sitting at a circular white table opposite the moderator, began courteously by exchanging gifts for Father’s Day, but soon began accusing each other of wrongdoing in the first round of the election.

Mr. Yildirim repeated his party’s allegations that the vote had been stolen. He said that a full recount would have shown he had won but that it was blocked by the opposition.

Mr. Imamoglu accused Mr. Yildirim of slander, saying that the High Election Council had made no mention of any stolen votes in its report. He accused Mr. Yildirim of announcing his own victory on the night of the March election when the numbers were showing the opposite.

The matchup on Sunday was momentous for Turkish citizens, who have been fed exhaustive pro-government programming across mainstream news media in recent years under Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The president last took part in a televised debate when campaigning for prime minister in 2002.

A feverish campaign has been waged in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, since Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., refused to accept the result of the March 31 mayor’s race.

The loss of Istanbul, which has been in his party’s hands since Mr. Erdogan was mayor in the 1990s, caught the party by surprise, one of its lawmakers from the city acknowledged. Istanbul is Mr. Erdogan’s home base and a huge source of wealth and prestige for the A.K.P.

The legislator, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with party guidelines, said Istanbul had been presumed to be in the bag. But the last election proved that assumption flawed, at best.

Ihsan Aktas of the Genar polling firm, which had correctly predicted a close race in Istanbul, said the A.K.P. “forgot how to win by winning so often.” The opposition, he said, was far more motivated and united because of its opposition to Mr. Erdogan.

Opinion polls show the opposition candidate, Mr. Imamoglu, 49, just ahead of Mr. Yildirim, 63. Mr. Imamoglu, mayor of an outlying district of Istanbul, won support with an all-embracing grass-roots campaign that played well with residents of the city.

Many have grown weary of more than 20 years of the A.K.P.’s running Istanbul and are feeling the bite of an economic downturn as the currency, the lira, has shed much of its value.

Some analysts have predicted that a sympathy vote for Mr. Imamoglu — who was declared winner and took up office the first time around, only to have his mandate subsequently withdrawn — could increase his chances in the rerun.

But there is every sign that the A.K.P. is working to improve its performance and make sure it gets the vote out this time.

Mr. Yildirim will take the fall if he loses, Mehmet Acet, a pro-government columnist, wrote this week.

“It would be Binali Yildirim if he wins the election, and it would be him again if he loses it,” Mr. Acet wrote in the daily Yeni Safak, quoting a senior A.K.P. official.

That fact may also help distance Mr. Erdogan from a potential loss and insulate him from any fallout. The president has drawn back from the campaign, and more often appears in the news handling matters of state, commentators noted.

It is Mr. Yildirim who is mingling more with people on the streets and squares.

He has borrowed from Mr. Imamoglu’s campaign, abandoning staged speeches and even matching his rival’s campaign promises with offers of his own, such as free internet access for young people and support for engaged couples.

Whether that strategy will be enough to win this time is far from clear.

Mr. Yildirim acknowledged after the March vote that the opposition had succeeded by forming an alliance, with its three main parties putting aside their considerable differences and voting tactically for a single candidate.

But the biggest shock for members of Mr. Erdogan’s party was the resistance from their own supporters. An analysis of the voters who abstained in the last round may spell similar trouble this time.

In one Istanbul district, Umraniye, 77,000 A.K.P. members declined to cast ballots in an election where the margin was only 13,000 votes, the A.K.P. lawmaker said.

All told, according to Mr. Aktas of the Genar polling firm, “300,000 voters did not come out to vote for A.K.P. this time in the local elections,” meaning those in March.

Most of those were ethnic Kurdish voters who had traditionally supported Mr. Erdogan. Many have been alienated by his alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party and the increasing anti-Kurdish tone of the political arena, Mr. Aktas said.

“Kurdish supporters became uncomfortable,” Mr. Aktas added. “The nationalist talk caused a loss in Istanbul.”

On Sunday both candidates promised they would address some of Istanbul’s pressing problems. Mr. Imamoglu, in particular, addressed poverty and unemployment and criticized the government’s track record. Mr. Yildirim emphasized his long government service and promised to solve Istanbul’s transportation problems.

For Turkish viewers the two-hour debate offered at least a chance to see serious questions leveled directly at a senior government official.

The moderator, Ismail Kucukkaya from Turkey’s Fox TV — no relation to the American channel — asked Mr. Yildirim if he would declare his assets and those of his family if he became mayor, a pointed question because of previous corruption allegations involving his family. Mr. Yildirim said he would.

To another question, he denied ever meeting with Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic preacher who is accused of being behind a coup attempt in 2016, which set off expressions of disbelief on social media.

Mr. Yildirim showed impatience with some of Mr. Imamoglu’s answers, often interrupting him and even earning a reprimand from the moderator. But the debate ended with jokes and smiles.

“This debate won’t change anyone’s vote,” said Asli Aydintasbas, senior fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations. “But it’s good that A.K.P. conceded to a political debate from a democratic standpoint.”

Source: NYT > World

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