Istanbul mayoral candidates fail to sway voters during rare live debate

The highly-anticipated televised debate between the Istanbul mayoral candidate from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Binalı Yıldırım and opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu on Sunday proved to be a lacklustre event with no breakthrough moments. 

The live election debate, the first in Turkey since 2002, arrives days before the Istanbul mayoral revote set to take place on June 23. CHP’s İmamoğlu scored a narrow victory of13,000 votes over AKP’s Yıldırım in the city’s March 31 election, however, AKP successfully contested the result, claiming vote-rigging and new elections were ordered.

The moderator started the debate by asking both candidates for their take on what happened in the March 31 elections and the reasoning for the revote.  

CHP’s İmamoğlu focused on discrepancies in the the March 31 poll results and state-run Anadolu news agency’s handling of the polling data during the first half of the debate.

The state-run Anadolu Agency stopped publishing voting results when Imamoğlu was only a few thousand votes behind his AKP opponent on the night of March 31. The agency, which is the major source of election data in the country, did not update its Istanbul data for 13 hours without giving any explanation for the interruption of the data flow.

“It was about an hour after the voting ended that some TV channels started broadcasting results showing our rival with 63.84 percent ahead and when the votes (of both sides) came head to head on Anadolu Agency, Yıldırım declared victory,‘’ İmamoğlu said.

İmamoğlu noted that the agency stopped updating data shortly after Yıldırım declared victory and asked the AKP candidate if he talked to the agency’s officials.

The CHP candidate also said unless the party had been meticulous in maintaining official reports on March 31, the secularist party would have been forced to concede a loss in Istanbul.

Yıldırım noted that while it was not right for Anadolu Agency to stop sharing poll data, this is a matter which does not concern him.

Responding to İmamoğlu’s statement on Yıldırım’s premature declaration of victory, Yıldırım said, “Is there anything more natural than declaring victory when we [had] won in 24 of 39 districts of Istanbul?‘’

AKP’s Yıldırım noted that the party did not wish for a mayoral rerun in İstanbul. “We only sought our rights by way of a legal struggle,‘’ Yıldırım noted in an apparent reference to the party’s appeal to the country’s Supreme Election Council (YSK).

The AKP candidate also listed the accomplishments of the AKP during its 25 years in power in Istanbul.

“In 1994, there was 14 litres of water per person, but now there is 101 litres. The amount of green space has multiplied by six to 60 million square metres,‘’ the former Transport and Urban Planning Minister Yıldırım said.

Another topic which dominated the first half of the debate was İmamoğlu’s order immediately after resuming office for a copy to be made of the Istanbul municipality databases, a move which was halted by a Turkish court.

“Why did you give an order to copy all the data of the municipal archives and did you know that this is a breach of rights of the people and their privacy?‘’ Yıldırm asked İmamoğlu, noting that data copying is the work of the Gülen movement, a religious group designated a terrorist organisation by Ankara and accused of orchestrating the July 2016 coup attempt.

İmamoğlu noted that the CHP had been receiving complaints and reports about the municipal archives and planned only to back-up the files.

Küçükkaya posed a question on the Gülen movement in the second half of the debate, asking the candidates how they plan to deal with the group accused of being a terrorist organisation.

The Gülen group is known for providing dormitories to university students. CHP’s İmamoğlu said it was natural to cooperate with NGOs, but providing dormitories was the business of the municipality, not NGOs.

The AKP, since the March 31 elections, has been accused of cronyism over funds to foundations. Yıldırım stressed that all support those associations received were in-kind.

AKP’s Yıldırım, during a more heated exchange in the second half of the debate, accused İmamoğlu of being a liar.

“I am watching him in shock. Mr. İmamoğlu says he does not like lies but he has made it a habit of never telling the truth,” the AKP candidate asserted.

When asked about the over 500,000 Syrian refugees living in Istanbul, CHP's Imamoğlu vowed to establish a special unit to address the Syrian refugee crisis in Istanbul.

“We will hold a refugee population census, especially among children,” İmamoğlu said.

AKP's Yıldırım, while answering the same question said that Syrians living in Turkey were under temporary protection.

"They will return home. Nearly 500,000 people returned to areas liberated from terrorists by Turkey and more will leave after area east of Euphrates River is cleared," the AKP candidate said, adding that Syrians living in Istanbul who disturb the peace or engage in illegal activities would be apprehended.

AKP's Yıldırım also vowed to create  20 "green corridors," integrating them with Istanbul's northern forests and planned "public gardens," as part of effort to boost the green space of Turkey's largest city.

On the topic of Istanbul’s transportation, Yıldırım pointed to AKP’s projects such as the Marmaray, an intercontinental subway that connects the Asian and European sides of Istanbul through a submerged tunnel under the Bosporus, which had alleviated traffic problems in the city of 16 million.  

Yıldırım vowed to fully resolve Istanbul’s traffic problem in five years while pointing to his resume as the former transport and urban planning minister.

CHP’s Imamoğlu, however, said the average time of an Istanbul resident spent in traffic daily was over 90 minutes and the AKP had not been able to solve the city’s infamous traffic congestion.

İmamoğlu, at the end of the debate, invited Yıldırım to have a photograph taken together with both candidates wives, noting that the city was in need of images displaying unity. 

The debate failed to deliver on the excitement building up to the rare event, critics said.

"This is not turning out to be the nail biting match all were expecting it to be. For now, Imamoglu supporters will be w/him; Yildirim's will stay with him," Assistant Professor of history at Brooklyn College Louis Fishman wrote on Twitter.

Economist at Harvard Kennedy School Danny Rodrik said that İmamoglu put out a better performance during the debate, despite Yıldırım's complete lack of charisma.

Despite stating that he had made no special preparations for the debate, AKP’s Yıldırım was expected to take on a more assertive tone to regain Turkey’s largest city of Istanbul, which has ruled by the Islamist party and its predecessor for 25 years.

The AKP lost four out of five of Turkey’s most populous provinces in the March 31 polls, however critics maintain, the loss of Istanbul, where Erdoğan launched his political career as mayor, was the greatest blow to Turkey’s strongman.

News anchor Ismail Küçükkaya, who moderated the debate on Fox TV, posed approximately 20 common questions for the mayoral hopefuls, with three questions that are unique to the candidates.

The last televised election debate in Turkey took place before 2002, between AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the then-leader of the opposition CHP.