İstanbul’s popular opposition mayor faced a new hearing on Wednesday in a politically-charged trial that could bar him from seeking office months before next year’s general election, Agence France-Presse reported.
Prosecutors want to sentence Ekrem İmamoğlu to between 15 months and four years in jail over a remark he made after defeating President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ally in a hugely controversial 2019 mayoral vote.
People who are sentenced to less than four years are rarely put behind bars in Turkey.
But a conviction would disqualify İmamoğlu — one of the brightest stars of Turkey’s main secular party — from politics for the duration of the sentence.
İmamoğlu would continue serving as İstanbul’s mayor while his almost certain appeal wound its way through the courts.
The mayor’s team views the trial as Erdoğan’s personal vendetta against one of his biggest rivals.
“Despite everything, I want to trust the judges, the prosecutors and the decision makers,” he said on the eve of Wednesday’s third hearing in the trial.
The case stems from an offhand remark İmamoğlu made to reporters a few months after defeating Erdoğan’s ally in a re-run election held after his first victory was annulled.
Officials reported discovering hundreds of thousands of “suspicious votes” after Erdoğan refused to acknowledge İmamoğlu’s initial win in a city that he himself ran before entering national politics two decades ago.
The decision backfired badly on Erdoğan’s Islamic-rooted party.
Waves of protests and a groundswell of support from all political corners delivered İmamoğlu an overwhelming victory in a re-run vote held that June.
İmamoğlu let his frustration at the entire episode spill over a few months later by calling the people who annulled the first vote “idiots.”
Prosecutors have charged the mayor with the crime of “insulting” public officials.
İmamoğlu has not personally attended the hearings and there has been no indication of how long the trial might last.
İmamoğlu’s potential disqualification from politics comes with Turkey’s opposition parties still arguing about who should stand against Erdoğan in next June’s presidential vote.
The İstanbul mayor is among a handful of opposition leaders that polls show could beat Erdoğan in a head-to-head race.
Erdoğan’s domination of Turkish politics has been shaken by an economic crisis made worse by his unconventional approach to interest rates.
But more recent polls show Erdoğan’s ratings beginning to recover thanks to his widely-praised handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This puts even more pressure on the opposition to put aside their personal rivalries in the election campaign.
İmamoğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP)is headed by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu — a leftist former civil servant who generally performs poorly in opinion polls.
The CHP has been holding round-table talks with five smaller allies about a single candidate who would not split the anti-Erdoğan vote.
Those talks have been mired by arguments over policy and general unease about fielding Kilicdaroglu instead of someone more likely to beat Erdoğan.
İmamoğlu’s legal troubles have effectively disqualified him from the race.
He told reporters this week that Kilicdaroglu was the only possible candidate from the CHP.
“But at the end of the day it is up to the round-table to make a decision about a single candidate,” İmamoğlu said.