Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a politician whom polls have shown would likely dislodge Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan from the presidency should he be nominated to run against him in the 2023 Turkish elections, was on December 14 sentenced to more than two-and-a-half years in prison for insulting public officials in a speech with the word “fools”. His conviction, which will have to be confirmed by an appeals court, would disqualify him from taking part in the elections.
The US State Department was quick to register concern at the turn of events, with its principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel saying the department was “deeply troubled and disappointed” by the Turkish court handing a jail sentence to Imamoglu.
Patel added: “This unjust sentence is inconsistent with respect for human rights, with respect to fundamental freedoms and rule of law. We remain gravely concerned by the continued indictment of civil society, media, political and business leaders in Turkey and their prolonged pretrial detention.”
US President Joe Biden is known to be concerned by Erdogan’s autocratic approach to ruling Turkey. In an interview given during his campaign to unseat his predecessor Donald Trump, Biden referred to Erdogan as an “autocrat” and said Turkish opposition parties should be encouraged.
Erdogan remains in trouble in the opinion polls, given that he is widely perceived to have plunged Turkey into a longstanding deep economic crisis through economic mismanagement, but he is expected to fight tooth and nail to hang on to power.
The sidelining of Imamoglu might prove useful in opening up a path to an election victory for Erdogan. Another handy development for the Erdogan camp would be the derailing of the prospect of the leftwing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP) becoming kingmakers. The party could be decisive in wrestling power from Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) by backing the opposition bloc. HDP claimed 6mn or more voters in the last elections, amounting to around 12% of the electorate.
Right now, in an Ankara court, 108 opposition politicians are on trial for terrorism offences. If found guilty, hundreds of HDP members could be banned from politics. That could pave the way to the party being outlawed in a separate case taking place at Turkey’s top court.
Responding to the court verdict against him, Imamoglu addressed thousands of supporters who gathered in Istanbul, declaring from an open-top bus: “This decision is a disgrace for the Turkish judiciary. It’s the firmest expression of the fact that the judiciary has been transformed into an instrument to punish dissidents. It’s proof that the rulers of this country have no aim to bring justice and democracy to the country.”
He added: “We will not bow down to this corruption. These kinds of games won’t get in my way—I won’t be dismayed or give up.”
Erdogan and Imamoglu entered into a spat after Turkey’s spring 2019 local elections. In a stunning victory, Imamoglu, standing as a candidate for the main Republican People’s Party (CHP), defeated the Erdogan-endorsed candidate to win the Istanbul mayorship. Aides of Erdogan, a former Istanbul mayor himself, responded by vigorously complaining to the Supreme Election Council of irregularities at the polls. A repeat election was called. Imamoglu won it by a landslide.
Months after his victory, Imamoglu voiced the words that landed him in court, when he said: “Those who cancelled the election on March 31 are the fools.” The comment was taken by officials as an insult against election board judges. Imamoglu defended his use of the word "fools" to describe those who overturned the election result, saying he was responding to similar language used by Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.
“The powers given to us by the nation can’t be taken away by a few. God willing, our fight will become more powerful,” Halk TV further reported Imamoglu as saying after the court decision to hand him a prison sentence.
“Today’s ruling against Imamoglu shows, once again, that Erdogan has plenty of cards he can use to gain the upper hand ahead of the 2023 elections,” Wolfango Piccoli, the co-president of Teneo Intelligence, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg after the sentencing of Imamoglu was announced. “It remains to be seen whether today’s sentence will make Imamoglu more popular,” he added, pointing at similarities between Imamoglu’s conviction and Erdogan’s imprisonment, for reading a poem that a court found incited religious hatred, in the late 1990s.
Bloomberg reported that investors sold Turkish assets after the court’s Imamoglu decision. The benchmark Borsa Istanbul 100 index closed 3.6% lower on the day. The Turkish lira fell 0.2% against the dollar and five-year credit default swaps (CDS) on Turkey debt rose to 508 basis points, making the biggest jump in more than a week.