A clampdown too far? ‘Bizarre’ prison sentence may give Erdogan’s rival a boost

·5-min read
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu delivers a speech for his supporters during a protest in Istanbul on December 15 (AFP via Getty Images)
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu delivers a speech for his supporters during a protest in Istanbul on December 15 (AFP via Getty Images)

It did not take long for online sleuths to find evidence of potential political bias in the prosecution of Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu.

The judge who sentenced the opposition politician to jail for just over two and a half years and  banned him from politics on a charge of calling election officials “fools” is pictured on an Instagram post posing with officials of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

And the prosecutor who demanded even more prison time for Mr Imamoglu is pictured on social media being wed by an AKP official.

Another judge originally assigned to the case was reportedly removed after he indicated that he would not go along with such a draconian plan to neutralise one of Mr Erdogan’s most formidable challengers just months before presidential elections.

“This prosecution is a political prosecution and everyone is aware of that,” said Seren Selvin Korkmaz, executive director of the IstanPol Institute, a think tank. “Under this presidential system, without checks and balances, the Turkish judiciary is completely under the influence of the executive authority.”

Mr Imamoglu’s conviction, already widely condemned in Turkey and abroad, stems from the accusation that he insulted the senior election officials who annulled his narrow election victory in 2019, just months before he won a rematch even more handily.

Analysts say the sheer audacity of the prosecution underscores both the judiciary’s lack of independence and the desperation of Mr Erdogan, who is trailing in polls ahead of the elections to be held in May or June, because of the country’s moribund economy and record inflation.

“A government that is obviously going to lose under ordinary conditions will lead Turkey to elections in a period when extraordinary events become commonplace,” said Onur Alp Yilmaz, an Istanbul-based analyst and writer.

Turkish authorities have already used the judiciary to remove several political figures from the field, including Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas and philanthropist Osman Kavala, opponents of Mr Erdogan who are in jail. Authorities are also pursuing a case against Canan Kaftancıoglu, the former Istanbul leader of Mr Imamoglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the architect of this 2019 victory.

Mr Erdogan may have seen an especially threatening challenge to his rule in Mr Imamoglu. The 52-year-old former developer and local politician has shown a unique ability to connect to multiple demographics and constituencies. He has managed to remain mostly above the sometimes toxic fray of Turkish politics during more than three crisis-ridden years as mayor of the city of 16 million, the most populous in Europe.

“Ä°mamoglu is a politician with the ability to speak directly across the public ‘kulturkampf’,” said Mr Yilmaz. “Fear of democratic competition and the fear of losing elections are the main trigger points for the government.”

But many wonder whether the verdict amounted to overreach and could backfire on the government. The ordinarily garrulous president and his allies were notably quiet about the Imamoglu case in the aftermath of Wednesday’s ruling. Some pro-government voices criticised the ruling. One columnist for the pro-government Hurriyet newspaper speculated that Mr Erdogan himself might be “annoyed” by the verdict, which could have been arranged by overzealous underlings.

“This is a bizarre verdict that will have no consequences on Imamoglu whatsoever no matter how you look at it,” wrote Mehmet Barlas in an editorial in the major pro-government Sabah newspaper on Thursday. “It has proven to be a lifeline for Imamoglu, who is perceived by the public as an unsuccessful mayor with no prestige left.”

Ms Korkmaz noted that polls conducted by her think tank suggested that Mr Imamoglu’s popularity increased between his first and second elections in 2019 over perceptions that he had been wronged by the judiciary.

“Let’s not forget that in the repeated Istanbul elections, in the electoral districts where the government was strong, many government voters did not go to the polls and protested their own party against the injustice done to Imamoglu,” said Mr Yilmaz.

Mr Erdogan himself a quarter century ago rose to national prominence after he was imprisoned by the country’s secular leaders for publicly reciting a Muslim hymn deemed a violent threat.

“What made Erdogan a nationally known figure was that he was sent to jail and his crime was exercising his freedom of speech,” said Soner Cagaptay, Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We have seen how President Erdogan’s administration makes some pretty bad decisions. This is basically another of these missteps. Erdogan may have created his own nemesis.”

Mr Erdogan’s opponents, a loose coalition of six liberal, nationalist, secular and Islamist-leaning political parties, had been accused for months of fecklessness, infighting and indecisiveness. But Wednesday’s verdict, even if it will not be implemented until appeals are exhausted, appeared to galvanise them.

Mr Imamoglu planned a second rally on Thursday after a Wednesday evening gathering drew thousands to the mayor’s headquarters.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu cut short a trip abroad to return to Turkey and join Mr Imamoglu. Meral Aksener, leader of the nationalist Iyi party rushed to Mr Imamoglu’s side. Leaders of several other small opposition parties also joined in condemning the verdict.

“The opposition still hasn’t come to a final conclusion on who could lead them but this will speed up the process by which the opposition will bring forth a candidate,” said Mr Cagaptay. “This could put Imamoglu a step ahead of everyone else.”

Supporters of Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu wave national flags on Thursday (AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu wave national flags on Thursday (AFP via Getty Images)

Outside Turkey, the mayors of a dozen European Union cities came to Mr Imamoglu’s defence, issuing a joint statement describing the verdict as “a sham of democracy” that “risks setting Turkey back years in terms of good governance”.

Western officials have yet to comment on the ruling, likely seeking not to give Mr Erdogan ammunition.

“They should stay out of it because any kind of Western support to anyone against Erdogan would be seen as intervention in Turkish politics, given the quite severe anti-Western sentiment Erdogan has fanned” said Mr Cagaptay. “They just should state that they are in support of free and fair elections.”