Istanbul mayoral candidates to debate in rare TV face-off

In healthy democracies, a candidate’s willingness to participate in a televised debate ahead of elections is not newsworthy. In Turkey, where the last major political debate took place in 2002, such a decision can be seen as a watershed moment.

On June 16, Binali Yildirim, the Istanbul mayoral candidate from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), agreed to take part in a debate with his rival, Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), ahead of the do-over elections scheduled for June 23. In March, Imamoglu surprised many when he narrowly won the Istanbul mayoral seat — long held by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP and its ideological forerunners — but his victory was revoked after Turkey’s electoral board ruled some ballot box committees had violated electoral laws and a redo was set in motion.

With less than two weeks before voting day, Yildirim continues to trail behind in opinion polls and is now set to face off against the charismatic Imamoglu on live television in a much anticipated political event that some observers see as a rare sign of weakness from the AKP. For nearly two decades, the party has governed Turkey and most of its largest cities, setting its own terms on public discourse as opposition leaders and media outlets have been increasingly silenced. Yet after losing most major metropolitan areas in the March 31 municipal elections, the AKP has been forced to alter its campaign strategy at the risk of losing Istanbul a second time.

“Given that Binali Yildirim already has state support, government support and name recognition, I think he is doing this because he’s trailing behind Imamoglu,” Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, told Al-Monitor. “[The AKP knows] they are running out of time and options to close the gap.”

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