Istanbul mayor candidates hold first live debate in 17 years

Sunday’s TV debate focused mainly on why the March 31 vote needs to be redone after the opposition narrowly won.

Istanbul election
People watch the debate between Istanbul's mayoral candidates Ekrem Imamoglu and Binali Yildirim on Sunday [Murad Sezer/Reuters]

Istanbul, Turkey – Rival candidates to be Istanbul’s mayor came face to face in a live TV debate that largely focused on why a vote rerun will be held on June 23.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) candidate, Binali Yildirim, answered a broad array of questions on Sunday regarding the economy, unemployment, green areas, Syrian immigrants and women.

However, questions revolving around why Istanbul residents need to recast their ballots – after already voting on March 31 – took up the first half of the three-hour debate.

Yildirim commenced by stating there had been some “wrongdoings” in the March 31 election and the High Election Board had evaluated the “situation” and annulled the vote.

“Our preference would not be to renew the election,” Yildirim said.

After it had been announced on April 17 that Imamoglu had won by a small margin, AK Party lodged an “extraordinary objection” leading to the election board ordering a rerun based on alleged voting irregularities.

During the debate, Imamoglu took extensive time to refer to the coverage by state-run Anadolu Agency, which stopped broadcasting the vote count as it turned in Imamoglu’s favour. The news agency is the main source of vote-count data.

“Why did Anadolu Agency cut the data? Why for 12 hours the data was not shared? … It was very clear they didn’t like this process,” Imamoglu said as he flashed colourful graphs and timelines.

He noted AK Party put banners around Istanbul at midnight thanking the people of Istanbul for its win, seemingly drawing a parallel between the cut of vote data and the early preparation of banners.

Yildirim said it was not his job to know why Anadolu halted the broadcast and explained AK Party had at the time won 65 percent of Istanbul’s districts.

“So while the result was this … of course we won, those banners were put by our party, it’s very natural,” Yildirim said.

Political polarisation

The last TV debate in Turkey was in 2002 between AK Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and former CHP leader Deniz Baykal ahead of the general election.

Seeing as political leaders have since avoided debates because of political polarisation, Sunday’s discussion followed strict protocols.

Each candidate was asked the same question with equal answer time, diligently moderated by veteran journalist and TV presenter Ismail Kucukkaya.

Echoing voters’ concerns, Kucukkaya asked each candidate if there will be any rejection of the results in the June 23 election, or if they would each accept the result.

“If it requires a recounting of the results, then we will need to. I believe it’s only normal,” said Yildirim.

Imamoglu replied his party doesn’t make rejections with “fabricated reason”.

“It will be safe and we believe we won’t have any reason to reject,” he said.

A large portion of CHP’s election campaign has been based on eradicating a “system of extravagance” currently undertaken by the ruling AK Party.

“Istanbul’s biggest problem is poverty now and there are serious problems regarding financial process,” Imamoglu said in the debate.

He claimed the current Istanbul municipality had wasted millions of Turkish lira on various projects, as well as budgets not being allocated equally among the districts.

AK Party supporter Murad Julfidan, 45, said the current Istanbul government has only made a positive change to the city.

“Before the AKP was in power in Istanbul, it was so dirty and ugly, there were so many things wrong,” Julfidan said.

He referred to major infrastructure promises the AK Party made and followed through on, such as investment into new metro systems and bridges.

Kurdish vote

In the March 31 election, Kurds – who make up 15 percent of Istanbul’s 16 million population – were the majority of non-voters, making them a crucial demographic in the rerun.

Seeing as the pro-Kurdish HDP party has not put forward a candidate in the Istanbul election, the majority of the population was predicted to vote for CHP.

A touchy subject for most politicians, as the armed conflict has been ongoing in Turkey’s southeast since 1978 between Kurds fighting for autonomy and the state, moderator Kucukkaya asked each candidate who a Kurdish person in Istanbul should vote for.

“The biggest problem of this country is partisanship… We come for making peace and making this nation equal,” Imamoglu said.

Yildirim replied by saying AK Party governments don’t check ethnicity or religion before providing services.

“While bringing service to our people we do it the same to everyone, this is our principles, if the address of partisanship for us, I deny this,” Yildirim said.

Adnan Dogan, 43, a CHP supporter, said neither of the candidates wanted to get into “risky waters” with the Kurdish issue.

Dogan doesn’t believe the debate will change any voter behaviour before June 23.

“The debate won’t lead into a landslide victory, [honestly] it was boring,” Dogan said.

“Yildirim wanted to get on Imamoglu’s nerves, and it didn’t work.”

Source: Al Jazeera