Why Istanbul’s mayor was sentenced to jail – and what it means for Turkey’s 2023 presidential race
A Turkish court’s decision on Dec. 14, 2022, to jail Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu for two years and seven months for insulting public officials hung on comments he made three years ago. But its impact will be felt on an event taking place in a few months time: the Turkish presidential election.
If the appeals court upholds Imamoglu’s conviction – based on a 2019 speech in which he allegedly called Turkey’s supreme election council “fools” – the opposition figure will be barred from holding any political office. It hands President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a double win: Not only does it mean Erdogan would retake control of Istanbul, but it also would potentially prevent his strongest challenger from running in the June 2023 election.
Whether politically motivated or not, the court ruling might not work out the way Imamoglu’s rivals hope – as Erdogan should well be aware. The Turkish president’s long road to political dominance began with his election as Istanbul mayor in 1994. The secularist elite, who at that time dominated Turkey’s politics and feared the rise of Erdogan’s religious conservatism, banned him from politics through a court decision that saw him imprisoned for four months over inciting religious hatred in a speech. That sentence, in fact, only bolstered Erdogan’s support. Perhaps similarly, Imamoglu’s sentencing was followed by thousands of supporters’ taking to the streets in protest.
Erdogan’s declining popularity
The long-serving president is a pragmatic politician. For over 25 years, Erdogan has pursued a dual strategy to tighten his power grip: gaining legitimacy by winning elections while also consolidating power by employing a long list of authoritarian methods, such as jailing journalists and labeling opposition figures as “terrorists.”
But the 2023 election comes as Erdogan’s position in Turkey appears weaker, with polls suggesting he could lose to one of a few potential challengers, with the opposition yet to announce who will contend the election.
Istanbul’s municipal election in 2019 proved a turning point in Erdogan’s political fortunes. Imamoglu, the candidate of his main opposition, the Republican’s People Party, won against the candidate of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. Erdogan did not accept the defeat and supported the cancellation of the election through a decision of the supreme election council, which prompted Imamoglu’s “fools” comment.
Yet Imamoglu won again with even a bigger margin in the subsequent rerun election.
Since 2019, Erdogan’s popularity has declined further, according to most public surveys. He is now less popular than both Imamoglu and Ankara’s mayor, Mansur Yavas, from the same opposition party.
A major reason for Erdogan’s popularity problem is the ongoing economic crisis. Turkey’s annual inflation rate has soared above 80%. In a nationwide survey of February 2021, 50% said poverty was leading them to skip meals.
The economic crisis is directly associated with Erdogan’s rule, which has resulted in a brain drain and misguided financial policies, especially his insistence on lowering interest rates to reduce inflation – a policy that runs counter to what most economists would prescribe.
If the opposition pursues a reasonable strategy, Erdogan is heading toward defeat at the June 2023 election – should the ballot be fair and free.
But observers fear he will try to game the system or change the rules to win the election and keep his superpresidential powers for five more years.
Erdogan has already worked to establish a compliant media, through confiscation, crony capitalism and repression, including the arrest and imprisonment of journalists. In October, Erdogan brought in a new “censorship law” passed to further criminalize journalists and control social media.
He also strengthened ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and normalized relations with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed in a bid to encourage their financial support in the run-up to the election.
Will history repeat itself?
And then there is the direct attack on opposition figures. If Imamoglu is sent to jail, he will not be the only major politician to languish in Turkish prisons.
Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, has been behind bars for over six years. Demirtas supported Imamoglu during 2019 municipal elections and has criticized the new court sentence against him.
This demonstrates what makes Imamoglu a potentially potent electoral threat to Erdogan: his ability to appeal to voters from various segments of society. He can get the minority but crucial Kurdish vote while retaining strong relations with nationalist politicians. He is from a secularist party, but he is able to recite the Quran publicly in an overture to religious voters. What Erdogan fears is an opposition figure who can serve as a “big tent” candidate.
This helped Imamoglu defeat Erdogan’s party in Istanbul twice in 2019. In a few months, we will see whether he can pull off the same achievement on the national stage – but that can only happen if Imamoglu is legally able to run.
The danger for Erdogan is that if the jailing of Imamoglu is taken by Turkey’s population to be politically motivated, it might make his rival more popular. If so, it might prove a case of history repeating itself in Turkey – only this time, to Erdogan’s misfortune.