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The mayor of Istanbul has announced he intends to run for re-election in next year’s municipal polls, firing the starting gun in a race seen as a crucial signal of whether the opposition can present a serious challenge to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Speaking at a press conference held to announce his bid, Ekrem İmamoğlu, one of Erdoğan’s chief political adversaries, called for Turkey’s opposition to “come together” to win Istanbul again. “Solving the gigantic problems of Istanbul is a testing ground for solving Turkey’s problems,” İmamoğlu said. “That’s why winning Istanbul is winning Turkey.”
İmamoğlu’s declaration comes after Erdoğan beat Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who was backed by a six-party coalition, in May’s presidential race. The defeat in an election billed as the biggest challenge to Erdoğan’s rule in the two decades since he came to power has sent Turkey’s opposition into disarray.
Erdoğan, who began his own political career in Istanbul, has said seizing back control of the city — home to almost a fifth of Turkey’s population — is a priority for his Justice and Development party (AKP).
The municipal elections are scheduled for March 2024.Kılıçdaroğlu, who leads the Republican People’s party (CHP), said this week that İmamoğlu and popular Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş would win in the polls, but he has not yet confirmed them as the party’s candidates.
İmamoğlu has faced intense pressure from Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian government since winning control of the city in 2019.
The mayor faces a political ban if he is unsuccessful in appealing against a conviction for allegedly insulting election officials, a charge criticised by the US state department and rights groups. A separate case, in which İmamoğlu is accused of corruption — charges he denies — began winding its way through courts this year.
“We have seen in the past that many ways have been tried to obtain the Istanbul municipality . . . and they will continue to try,” İmamoğlu said on Tuesday, referring to a decision by Turkey’s top electoral body to force a rerun of the 2019 Istanbul contest, which he won by a wide margin. “They won’t give up on it.”
The campaign for Istanbul comes at a fraught moment for Turkey’s opposition. Kılıçdaroğlu, who has led Turkey’s main opposition CHP party for 13 years, has been sharply criticised by former members of his alliance over the defeat in May’s election. İmamoğlu, a CHP member, has called for “change” but stopped short of calling for Kılıçdaroğlu’s removal.
İmamoğlu will need to forge an alliance to shore up his position in next year’s local elections. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP) and the Good party, which backed Kılıçdaroğlu in the national elections, have yet to indicate who they will support.
“I see this defeat [in the general elections] as the opportunity to start a radical and inclusive renewal process in our party,” İmamoğlu said, adding that “we must put aside debates between us and focus on this process as a nation”.
As the incumbent, İmamoğlu is seen as the CHP’s best chance of keeping control of Istanbul. But analysts said the loss of the general election in May had embittered opposition voters, and their disillusionment with the CHP could weigh on his chances.
İmamoğlu “is doing this while calling for change within his own party”, and there was a “risk” he could pay a price for that, said an aide to the mayor, who asked not to be named