Istanbul mayoral candidates appear in first Turkish debate in 17 years

An opposition candidate won the March 31 election, ending the AKP's quarter century rule over Turkey’s biggest city

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 16: People watch a television in a cafe as Istanbul mayoral candidate Binali Yildirim of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican Peoples Party (CHP) take part in a live television debate on June 16, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey.  Anticipation has grown across Istanbul ahead of the live televised debate for the June 23 re-run Istanbul elections. Outdoor viewing areas have been set up across parts of Istanbul for the historic debate. The last major political debate in Turkey took place in 2002. Imamoglu won a narrow victory during the first mayoral election held in March, defeating the candidate from President Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) but Turkeys election body annulled the result after claims of voting irregularities, and a re-run election was announced for June 23. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

The top two candidates to be Istanbul’s mayor faced off in the nation’s first televised election debate in 17 years on Sunday, trading charges over the outcome of an earlier vote and offering different approaches to economic growth.

Binali Yildirim, the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and Ekrem Imamoglu, of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, debated for about three hours ahead of the June 23 rerun of a vote ordered by an election body.

The opposition candidate Mr Imamoglu won the March 31 election, ending a quarter century of rule over Turkey’s biggest city by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party and its predecessor. But the AKP challenged the outcome, and in a controversial ruling last month, the High Election Board wiped out the earlier result and ordered a new vote.

Both Mr Imamoglu, 49, and Mr Yildirim, 63, are looking to capture support from the 1.7 million registered voters who didn’t cast ballots in March.

The fresh election is a “fight for democracy,’’ Mr Imamoglu said. “It’s a fight for democracy against those who violated our rights and the rights of 16 million people.’’ He vowed to run a “clean administration.’’

Mr Yildirim, the former prime minister, said the AKP did not want a new vote. “The election wouldn’t have been renewed had the CHP not resisted to recounting of all ballot papers,’’ he said.

The candidates squabbled over events on election night when Mr Yildirim – Mr Erdogan’s ally – claimed victory before final results were posted. At the time, the state-run news agency reported his lead as less than 0.1 percentage point, or about 5,000 votes. Mr Imamoglu said he won by more than 27,000 votes, based on ballot boxes that haven’t been registered yet.

As Mr Yildirim spoke that night, the state’s Anadolu news agency showed 98.8 per cent of votes tallied, then stopped updating results. The opposition party criticised the agency for manipulating the results in favour of the ruling party’s candidate.

Mr Imamoglu, noting a 12-hour halt in vote reporting, asked: “Mr Yildirim, what do things that Anadolu Agency has done that night mean for you?’’

Mr Yildirim, in response, directed the query to the agency. “Anadolu Agency officials should explain the reasons for halting its reporting. I admit that this is not a normal thing but I am not responsible for that.’’

As the debate was in progress, the agency issued a statement that condemned Mr Imamoglu for his “unjust accusations,’’ and added that the “High Election Board announces the results of elections in Turkey, not Anadolu Agency.’’

On other subjects, the moderator asked about their views of Kurdish voters. Mr Imamoglu said he will avoid partisanship that leads to polarisation, which he called “one of the greatest enemies” of the nation. “We will serve all 16 million Istanbul citizens equally,’’ he said. Mr Yildirim said he, too, will serve everyone equally without regard to ethnicity or religion.

Both candidates had ambitious economic plans to tackle poverty and unemployment. Mr Yildirim vowed to create 500,000 jobs in Istanbul over five years by establishing bio-technology and technology centers.

Mr Imamoglu said he will create resources by ending the ruling party’s overspending and waste, and criticised the municipality’s support of foundations run or managed by the president’s allies and family members, by way of paying for their rent and other costs.

The mayoral candidates also asked a few questions to each other. The mood of the debate was mostly calm though Mr Imamoglu criticised his opponent for repeatedly interrupting him.