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Istanbul votes for mayor in rerun seen as test for Erdogan’s party

Polling stations have opened in Istanbul on Sunday, with millions of voters choosing a new mayor in a controversial rerun after the result of the March election, won by the opposition, was cancelled.

Istanbul, 23 June 2019 (dpa/MIA) – Polling stations have opened in Istanbul on Sunday, with millions of voters choosing a new mayor in a controversial rerun after the result of the March election, won by the opposition, was cancelled.

Ekrem Imamoglu, 49, of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), defeated Binali Yildirim, 63, of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by 13,729 votes in the March 31 mayoral poll.

On May 6, the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) cancelled the vote in line with a demand from the Islamic-conservative AKP, which alleged irregularities, and ordered a redo.

Imamoglu was forced out of office after 18 days. He defiantly vowed to win again, reassuring his angry and dismayed supporters by saying “everything is going to be just fine,” which became the CHP’s new campaign slogan.

He has pledged to reveal details of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s “wasteful spending” and “corruption” under the AKP.

The YSK decision, which sparked peaceful protests in this city of 16 million and drew condemnation from foreign allies over the state of democracy and rule of law in Turkey, propelled Imamoglu onto the national stage.

The soft-spoken, mild-mannered, little-known mayor from the Istanbul district of Beylikduzu was suddenly seen as a political force to contend with, perhaps even a challenger one day to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan’s AKP is in a coalition with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and controls the central government. It also won the majority in nationwide local elections three months back.

But the AKP suffered stunning losses in crucial mayoral races in the capital, Ankara, and Istanbul – both controlled by Islamic conservatives for 25 years – as punishment from voters angered by an economic downturn and soaring inflation.

Istanbul is important because it is the country’s financial and cultural capital, as well as its most-populous city. It has 10.57 million eligible voters.

As the driver of Turkey’s economy, it is home to lucrative multi-million-dollar infrastructure projects and contributes a third of the country’s GDP. Its expense budget for 2019 is 23.8 billion lira (4.08 billion dollars).

Of 41,000 international companies registered in Turkey, 25,000 are located in Istanbul, making the city critical to foreign direct investment flows into the country.

The CHP is taking no chances this time. Its Istanbul provincial director Canan Kaftancioglu said they will have 200,000 people fanned out across all polling stations and its own observers for each ballot box.

Observers from the Council of Europe will also be present at polling stations.

This election is personal for Erdogan. He was born in Istanbul’s working-class neighbourhood of Kasimpasa. It’s the city that launched his political career by picking him as mayor in 1994.

He once said that whoever loses Istanbul, loses Turkey.

Several polls, even AKP intra-party data, have put Imamoglu in the lead. The AKP still controls the local parliament, but a second defeat will be a slap in the face for Erdogan and the party responsible for the rerun.

Analysts say whatever the outcome, Istanbul is not just choosing a new mayor, but is also setting a future course for the country.

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