ISTANBUL (AP) — A look at the two main candidates running for mayor of Istanbul in Sunday's repeat election. The re-run follows an election board decision to annul the results of the March 31 local elections in the country's largest city, which the opposition won by a narrow margin. The board ruled in favor of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's governing party.
A newcomer to mainstream politics, Ekrem Imamoglu's election slogan of "Everything will be great!" has dented the dominance of Erdogan.
The 49-year-old served as mayor of Istanbul for just 18 days before his stunning election win in March was annulled and his mandate was revoked by the country's election commission over what it said were irregularities.
Backed by the secular Republican People's Party, CHP, and a nationalist ally, Imamoglu has kept up his enthusiastic campaign momentum, describing his effort as a fight for Turkish democracy. Opinion polls show that he's ahead. Being mayor of Istanbul could provide the perfect launchpad for him to challenge Erdogan in the presidential elections set for 2023.
"This election is to repair — to heal — the suppression democracy," he told The Associated Press in an interview this week. "God willing, the victors will be Istanbul and democracy."
Imamoglu, a soft-spoken former contractor and district mayor, has promised to end divisions in Turkey and has pledged to be mayor to all of Istanbul's 15 million residents. He has also vowed to expose alleged corruption in a city administration led by Erdogan's party and a predecessor Islamist party over 25 years — arguing that an inner circle of backers became rich while inadequate social policies failed to lift a quarter of Istanbul residents out of poverty.
With Turkey's media almost entirely dominated by pro-government outlets, Imamoglu has led a grassroots campaign, walking the streets of Istanbul to reach out to voters.
The pro-government candidate Binali Yildirim has run a mild-mannered campaign focusing on his achievements as prime minister and transport minister. His slogan: "We did it and we'll do it again."
The 63-year-old has struggled to explain the need for a re-run. At first, it was "because they stole it." Since rowing back on that comment, he's been stressing the need for a clear outcome.
Hand-picked by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, AKP, Yildirim has often appeared a reluctant candidate despite the heavy promotion.
His main challenge has been to rally government supporters during Turkey's economic slump, rising food prices, and controversy surrounding the re-run.
"Because we are deciding on the future of the city, I want (the people) to go to the ballot box," he told the AP during a brief interview. "Istanbul is a very important city ... We have a lot of important things to do for Istanbul."
As a former transport minister, Yildirim has pointed at his record of improving Istanbul infrastructure and services and has pledged uninterrupted service to Istanbul residents.
"Transportation is my thing," he has said.
He has also courted the city's Kurdish vote, visiting Turkey's mainly Kurdish-inhabited city of Diyarbakir, insisting Kurds had enjoyed unprecedented freedoms and democracy under the AKP's 17-year rule.