The Turkish government is using criminal charges to try to prevent Istanbul’s mayor, a top opposition figure, from becoming the president of the country or the head of his party, the mayor’s lawyer told The Media Line.
Ekrem Imamoglu, who gave the opposition its greatest victory in decades when he won the 2019 Istanbul mayoral race, is facing up to seven years in prison over new charges after being sentenced to more than two years last year.
The new charges accuse him of fraud over government tenders that were given out while Ekrem Imamoglu, a member of the main opposition party the Republican People’s Party (CHP) headed the Istanbul district of Beylikdüzü.
His lawyer, Gokhan Gunaydin, told The Media Line that the charges are a “political ploy” and the government wants to stop Imamoglu from becoming the head of the main opposition party or becoming the president of the country.
“The plan is to try to ban his political road,” Gunaydin said, who was in court yesterday representing Imamoglu against the new charges.
The communications office of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not immediately respond to The Media Line’s request for comment.
Gunaydin said that Imamoglu was not involved in the tenders that were given out which the charges are based on.
Imamoglu could be forced to leave office if found guilty or if the previous conviction against him is upheld due to what is known as a “political ban,” which would not allow him to be an elected official.
Gunaydin said that there would be several appeals before such a ban would be applied and that both supporters of the CHP and others who find the process unfair would put up a “struggle” against such a decision.
“The results of the last Istanbul election showed this will happen,” he said.
After Imamoglu won a slim victory against Erdogan’s ally in the mayoral race, the election board cancelled the results and said another vote had to be held, which Imamoglu ended up winning in a landslide.
Last year, Imamoglu was sentenced to more than two years for "insulting" election officials but that verdict is under appeal.
Imamoglu has denied all the charges against him.
Tensions in Turkey
Critics have accused the government of politically interfering with the country’s courts but the government insists the judiciary is independent.
Analysts say that Erdogan will clamp down harder on dissent after he won in elections that were expected to be the toughest challenge to his power, with several polls showing the opposition candidate was tied or ahead of him.
On Thursday, a co-founder of an opposition party headed by Erdogan’s former finance minister was sentenced to five years in prison over accusations that he shared confidential information.
The charges come ahead of local elections in which people will head to the polls to vote for mayors across the country.
Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based foreign policy analyst, stated that Erdogan’s top goals will be to win back Istanbul and Ankara which were taken by the opposition for the first time in decades during the 2019 local elections.
“For these two cities, Erdogan is reportedly considering names that are important and can get votes from all segments of society. However, he is aware that the negative impact of new economic policies on the population will play a large role in the elections,” Sezer wrote in a message to The Media Line.
Turkey’s struggling economy, with inflation reported at nearly 40 percent last month, is considered one of the top reasons Erdogan’s party lost the cities in the last local elections and why he was forced into a second round for the May presidential election to maintain his power.
Istanbul, the country’s largest city and economic engine, is where the Turkish president started his political career as its mayor and where he grew up in a working-class neighborhood.
His party’s loss of the mayoral election in the city is considered his greatest political defeat since coming to power.
The CHP is currently embroiled in internal party politics, with the failed presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu facing calls to step down as head of party and Imamoglu demanding complete change in the party.
Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst for the risk intelligence company RANE, told The Media Line that Erdogan is trying to prevent opposition candidates from winning the local elections because they could be seen as challengers in the next presidential election.
“I think he's going to try to disrupt the opposition, try to prevent them from coming back from their defeat this year,” Bohl said.
He stated that if the opposition won the local elections again in Istanbul and Ankara, it would create hope they could be successful in the 2028 presidential election, but if they lost, it would dampen their prospects further after their defeat in May.
“If they lose those seats, it’’ll put the opposition morale into an even deeper, lower place and it could end up in them dissolving… and the political party starting to fray and to fall apart,” he said.
“If they achieve victories then… the CHP will be able to stave that off, rally the troops and try to prepare the counter attack for 2028.”