Istanbul votes in test for Erdogan and Turkish democracy

Istanbul votes in test for Erdogan and Turkish democracy

Istanbul went back to the polls on Sunday in a re-run of themayoral election that has become a test of Turkish democracy as well asPresident Recep Tayyip Erdogan's continued popularity at a time of economictrouble.

Election authorities annulled the first vote in March afterErdogan's party alleged corruption in a count that showed the ruling AKP'scandidate had narrowly lost.

Polling stations opened at 0500 GMT and the 10.5 millionregistered voters have until they close at 1400 GMT to elect the new mayor.

Critics say Erdogan simply did not like the March 31 result,after a little-known former district mayor, 49-year-old Ekrem Imamoglu,snatched victory for the opposition by just 13,000 votes.

The city of 15 million is Turkey's economic powerhouse andhas been a crucial source of patronage for Islamic conservatives since Erdoganhimself won the mayorship a quarter-century ago.

But Imamoglu, of the secular Republican People's Party, hasbecome a household name since being stripped of his victory.

He has vowed a "battle for democracy" and used anupbeat message under the slogan "Everything will be fine", in starkcontrast to the usual aggressive name-calling of Turkish politics.

He will again face Binali Yildirim, a mild-mannered Erdoganloyalist who oversaw several huge transport projects and served as primeminister.

Fearing fraud, the opposition has mobilised an army oflawyers from across Turkey to monitor Sunday's election, with the Istanbul BarAssociation unfurling a huge banner at their headquarters that reads:"Stand guard for democracy".

The March election showed Erdogan's party remains the mostpopular in Turkey, adored by millions for overseeing dramatic growth, fiercelydefending the country's interests abroad and allowing religious conservatives aseat at the table.

But double-digit inflation and rising unemployment havedented Erdogan's reputation for economic stewardship.

Analysts warn he faces a "lose-lose" situation onSunday: an embarrassing second defeat, or a victory that the opposition willclaim was stolen out of their hands.

The re-run has also infuriated voters by forcing them backto the polls for the eighth time in just five years.

The controversy may explain Erdogan's relative silence, withno repeat of the tireless rallying last time, when he made 102 appearances injust 50 days.

Last weekend, he dismissed the Istanbul vote as "only achange in the shop window" since the AKP already runs almost two-thirds ofthe city's districts.

The AKP has still gone to great lengths, calling onconservative voters who abstained in March.

It has also tried to win over Kurds, who number in themillions in Istanbul and have been angered by the suppression of Kurdish rightsin recent years.

Yildirim travelled to one of the main Kurdish cities ofDiyarbakir this month and uttered the word "Kurdistan" — a taboo inTurkey.

There have even been signs of dialogue with the jailedleader of the Kurdish insurgency, Abdullah Ocalan, who has spent 20 years innear-total isolation on a prison island.

Ocalan was able to issue a statement this week, calling onthe pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party to remain neutral in the Istanbulelection, though they continue to back the opposition.

Analysts say Erdogan, who has won every election since 2002,should never be counted out.

But a second loss in Istanbul would undermine his image ofinvincibility and possibly embolden rivals such as ex-prime minister AhmetDavutoglu, who is said to have toyed with founding a new party.

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