İstanbul’s popular opposition mayor went on trial Thursday on fresh corruption charges that could further cloud his hopes of succeeding President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Agence France-Presse reported.
Ekrem İmamoğlu has turned into one of Erdoğan’s most outspoken and openly ambitious rivals since beating the president’s ally in İstanbul’s 2019 mayoral race.
The 52-year-old was initially stripped of his narrow victory and forced into a controversial rerun that he won by a large margin.
His success in Erdoğan’s native city shattered the powerful president’s aura of invincibility and turned İmamoğlu into a hero for the ruling party’s secular and liberal foes.
But his overt presidential ambitions have made him into a hate figure for both Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
He was officially barred from politics after being convicted in December of “insulting a public official” and sentenced to nearly three years in prison.
İmamoğlu appealed and can still serve as mayor.
But the possibility of a higher court upholding the sentence effectively ruled him out of running against Erdoğan in last month’s general election.
The opposition ultimately rallied around Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu– a bookish 74-year-old leader of İmamoğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Kılıçdaroğlu pushed Erdoğan into a runoff, but lost by more than four points.
Second political ban?
The CHP’s poor performance in accompanying parliamentary elections have added to pressure for Kılıçdaroğlu to make way for a younger generation of leaders such as İmamoğlu.
The new charges against the mayor come with both sides turning their focus on March 2024 municipal elections in which Erdoğan will try to take back control of İstanbul and other major cities.
The new case stems from İmamoğlu’s time as mayor of İstanbul’s Beylikdüzü district in 2015.
The indictment accuses İmamoğlu and six others of “rigging” a contract in which the public allegedly suffered losses of 250,000 lira (worth $90,000 at the time).
He could be sentenced to between three and seven years in prison — and banned from politics for a second time.
İmamoğlu has denied all charges and pointed out that an earlier investigation into the contract apportioned no blame.
He did not appear in court Thursday but has previously denied all charges and accused Erdoğan of using the courts as a bludgeon against his political opponents.
‘Everything will be good’
The new case was opened by Erdoğan’s hawkish former interior minister around the time when İmamoğlu was being mentioned as a possible presidential candidate last year.
Turkish trials tend to run over many months, and the next hearing will not take place until Nov. 30.
But it adds a new layer of complications for both İmamoğlu and the opposition as it tries to chink away at Erdoğan’s dominance over much of Turkey’s social and political life.
The trial opened one day after İmamoğlu had two hours of private talks with Kılıçdaroğlu in Ankara in which he reportedly tried to convince the opposition leader to make way for “change.”
Kılıçdaroğlu has refused.
The opposition leader argues that İmamoğlu should keep serving as mayor to avoid seeing Turkey’s biggest city from falling back into Erdoğan’s hands.
BBC Turkish reported that İmamoğlu expressed concern that the opposition may perform poorly across the nation should Kılıçdaroğlu hold on to his post for another year.
İmamoğlu has remained tight-lipped about the outcome of the talks.
“Everything will be good,” İmamoğlu told reporters upon his return to İstanbul.