Turkey’s ruling party attacks Istanbul mayor over crowded buses

As millions of residents in Turkey’s largest city stay at home and brace for the impact of the coronavirus, the opposition-controlled Istanbul Municipality has come under fire after a politician from the ruling party accused it of running dangerously crowded buses during a pandemic.

But the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) says the number of people who used the bus was unprecedented and that this points to an organised campaign to smear its municipality.

A photograph reportedly taken on the number 146 bus running between the Istanbul districts of Boğazköy to Bakırköy on Sunday at 6 a.m. was widely shared on social media after being uploaded by the Twitter user @Onderim2, who joined the social network in March 2020 and had one follower as of Monday morning.

The image gained traction as it was shared and condemned by Mücahit Birinci, a former councillor for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Beylikdüzü, who said he held Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu responsible for what he called a danger to the public health.

As of Sunday, the coronavirus has claimed the lives of at least 131 people in Turkey, and the Health Ministry has recorded nearly 10,000 infections. Turkey’s battle with COVID-19 has seen the government impose tight restrictions on transport and ordered elderly and vulnerable people to stay at home, but İmamoğlu has been among the leading voices calling for a full lockdown.

“This is a game to force the government to call for a lockdown,” said Birinci. “Our state officials must pay the utmost attention to this incident.”

Officials from the CHP have disputed Birinci’s claim, and said that if a game was afoot, it was İmamoğlu’s opponents who were playing it.

Istanbul Municipality spokesman Murat Ongün said that 65 passengers had used the number 146 bus on Sunday, compared to 31 passengers the previous week, in spite of tighter restrictions on transport. Forty-one of those passengers boarded at once at 6:15 a.m., he said, adding that a similar incident had happened on the same day on the number 62 line. 

“For 47 people to board our (number 62) bus – which carried only one passenger for 30 stops the previous week – at once on Sunday morning at 6 a.m. is an unprecedented situation,” the Istanbul Municipality said in a written statement.

“This is the scenario: With the epidemic quickly spreading and all public transport usage down 90 percent, on Sunday morning there is an unprecedented amount of activity,” Ongün said on Twitter. “At 6 a.m., masses of people board at once at several stops despite warnings.”

On Friday, İmamoğlu said the number Istanbul residents using public transport had fallen by 90 percent, but he warned that this still meant that there were more than 1 million passengers. The Istanbul mayor has called on the government to impose a tighter lockdown on the city.