Istanbul holds first TV debate in mayoral race since 2002

People watch a live broadcast of a televised debate between Istanbul's mayoral candidates Binali Yildirim (R) of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Ekrem Imamoglu (L) of the main opposityion Republican Peoples Party (CHP). The re-run election is next Sunday (AFP Photo/Ozan KOSE)

Ankara (AFP) - Istanbul's mayoral candidates clashed on Sunday in a historic television debate, the first since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party came to power in 2002.

The ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) Binali Yildirim, an Erdogan loyalist and former premier, went head-to-head against the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu a week before the re-run vote on June 23.

The AKP suffered a shock defeat in local elections on March 31 in Istanbul and Ankara after the party and its predecessors had run the two cities since 1994.

Imamoglu, a former district mayor, had won by around 13,000 votes against Yildirim.

But Turkey's top election body ordered a re-run of the Istanbul election after a challenge by the AKP who claimed there were suspicious votes and irregularities.

The AKP's Yildirim said during the debate that "votes had been stolen" from him.

But Imamoglu insisted he was "the elected mayor", adding: "There is a democractic fight for the rights of 16 million which were seized."

The debate was the first since October 2002 when Erdogan and then-CHP leader Deniz Baykal took part in a similar event before general elections in November of that year.

The debate lasted nearly three hours and was broadcast live on major news channels.

Imamoglu hit out at the AKP, saying he could make promises to the voters but since the party had already been in power for 25 years, Yildirim "did not have the right".

Yildirim pointed to his past as transport minister and prime minister, including major transportation projects in Istanbul such as the Marmaray underground railway tunnel which has linked the two sides of the Bosphorus since October 2013.

Erdogan earlier on Sunday appeared to play down the significance of the vote for the AKP, pointing to the party's control of 25 out of 39 Istanbul district municipalities.

"The election in one week is only for mayor," Erdogan said, describing the poll as "only a change in the shop window" and lambasting foreign media's keen interest in the vote.