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Istanbul wins top prize as Turkey votes in local polls

ISTANBUL: Turkey is holding municipal elections across the country on Sunday March 31, with all eyes on Istanbul, the national “jewel” that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to wrest from the opposition.

Erdogan’s path to power in Turkey began in Istanbul when he was elected mayor of the legendary city straddling Europe and Asia in 1994.

His allies held the city until Ekrem Imamoglu of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) took control five years ago.

Upon his re-election last May – he has been head of state since 2014 – Erdogan launched the campaign to reconquer the city of 16 million inhabitants.

“Istanbul is the jewel, the treasure and the apple of our country’s eye,” the 70-year-old leader recently told a rally in the city.

“Whoever wins Istanbul will win Turkey,” Erman Bakirci, a pollster at Konda Research and Consultancy, recalled once telling Erdogan.

The Turkish president has nominated former Environment Minister Murat Kurum as his candidate.

The latest polls show Imamoglu – who edged out an Erdogan ally in the 2019 election that grabbed international headlines – with a slight lead.

But analysts warn that opinion polls in Turkey have already been proven wrong and the outcome is far from certain.

The 2019 vote was controversially canceled, but Imamoglu won the re-vote by an even larger margin, making him an immediate hero for Turkey’s notoriously divided opposition and a formidable foe of Erdogan.


Observers say that if Imamoglu manages to retain the Istanbul mayor’s seat, he will be the ruling party’s main challenger in the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2028.

Erdogan devoted all his energy to campaigning for his candidate.

The city was plastered with posters showing Erdogan and Kurum together.

On Saturday, Erdogan attended three campaign rallies in the city, insisting that Imamoglu, whose name he never mentions, is a “part-time mayor” consumed by his presidential ambitions.

“Istanbul has been left to its own devices for the past five years. We hope to save it from disaster,” he said before heading to prayers in the famous Hagia Sophia mosque.

Imamoglu focused his campaign on local issues and defended his achievements in office.

“Every vote you give to the CHP will mean more subways, daycare centers, green spaces, social benefits and investments,” he promised.


Some 61 million voters will elect the mayors of Turkey’s 81 provinces, as well as members of provincial councils and other local officials.

The opposition has become divided in the run-up to the elections, unlike the local elections five years ago.

This time, the main opposition party, the social-democrat CHP, failed to rally support behind a single candidate.

The pro-Kurdish party DEM, for example, the third of the 600 seats in parliament, presents two candidates for mayor of Istanbul, whereas during the 2019 race, it had agreed to stay out of the vote to implicitly support the opposition.

The Istanbul ballot on Sunday will have 49 candidates and will measure 97 cm long.

The elections are taking place with inflation of 67 percent and a massive devaluation of the lira, which went from 19 to the dollar to 31 to the dollar in one year. Analysts believe this could work in favor of the opposition.

Observers say his candidates’ victories in major cities will embolden Erdogan.

“If he manages to reconquer Istanbul and Ankara, Erdogan will see this as an encouragement to modify the constitution so that it will be in force in 2028,” Bayram Balci, researcher at the Center for International Studies and Research at Sciences Po, told AFP. Paris.

“But if Imamoglu manages to keep his seat, he will have won the battle within the opposition,” he said.

Polling stations will open at 04:00 GMT in the east of the country and close at 14:00 GMT in the west, including Istanbul.

The first estimates should be published Sunday evening.

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