A mass rally on Thursday to protest against a prison term and political ban imposed on Istanbul's mayor is the clearest sign of unity among opposition parties that aim to dethrone President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in next year’s elections, analysts say.
A court on Wednesday sentenced Ekrem Imamoglu to two years and seven months in prison on charges of insulting members of the Supreme Electoral Board following his landslide victory in Istanbul’s local election three years ago.
A political ban would see him ousted as mayor of Turkey’s largest city and prevent him from standing against Mr Erdogan in a presidential vote scheduled for June. The date for an appeal hearing has yet to be set, and could happen before or after the election.
Mr Imamoglu, who represents the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has been seen as one of the most likely opposition candidates capable of defeating Mr Erdogan when he seeks a third term.
“Everybody knows this is a political decision, not a legal decision, of the court, and nobody’s discussing the legality of the court decision,” said Osman Sert, research director at private polling company Panormatr.
“Everybody sees this as a political decision to affect the result of the presidential election. Even [ruling party] members, it’s very difficult for them to defend the decision, they’re just trying to say it is the independent judiciary but they can’t defend it.”
While Mr Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) maintain the courts are independent, few doubt that the government has weaponised the judiciary to target its opponents.
Many observers suggested the decision to pursue Mr Imamoglu had been a miscalculation by Mr Erdogan as it could consolidate the opposition and be viewed by voters as undemocratic.
Some recalled the 2019 election in Istanbul when Mr Imamoglu was forced to face a re-run after the AKP claimed voting irregularities. The second poll saw him increase his winning margin by more than 792,000 votes.
Tens of thousands turned out in the rain for Thursday’s rally in front of the Istanbul municipality’s offices. It was the first time that opposition leaders, who have organised an alliance known as the Table of Six, had spoken together at such an event.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara-based German Marshall Fund, said the rally seemed to mark the start of the opposition’s campaign.
“Before this [court] decision, before yesterday, what were we talking about? We were talking about the lack of unity among the opposition,” he said. “Now they are taking the same podium … You see people rallying in a very enthusiastic way.
“So I think this has been a mistake for the government.”
The Table of Six, of which the CHP is the largest party, has been criticised recently for delaying naming a joint candidate to challenge Mr Erdogan.
It is thought Mr Erdogan would prefer to face CHP head Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the presidential race, which is due to be held alongside a parliamentary election. Under Mr Kilicdaroglu’s 12 years as CHP leader, the party has failed to win a national election and many prefer the potential candidacies of Mr Imamoglu or the CHP’s Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas.
“There may be both benefits and risks for Erdogan,” said Karol Wasilewski, a Turkey analyst and consultant for the Warsaw-based 4CF The Futures Literacy Company.
“The benefits are tied to the possible elimination of a heavy contender from the presidential race, providing that — and I guess Erdogan may be hoping for this — the opposition remains divided over the issue and unable to mobilise the electorate’s support for Imamoglu.
“The risks are obviously tied to the fact that Imamoglu’s popularity may rise as the one who is fighting against oppressors.”
Either way, the court case is a “very critical turning point,” said Mr Sert.
“After the elections, whether Mr Erdogan or the opposition wins, we will turn back to December 14 and look at this date and analyse what happened after this date.”