Istanbul mayoral candidates face off in rare debate

ZEYNEP BILGINSOY
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Turkey Local Elections

People watch a live broadcast of a televised debate between Istanbul's mayoral candidate Binali Yildirim, right, of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and Ekrem Imamoglu, centre, candidate of the secular opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, ahead of June 23 re-run of Istanbul elections, Sunday, June 16, 2019. Televised election debates are uncommon in Turkey. The last one, between AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the then-leader of the CHP, took place before a 2002. The AKP has been in power since. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

ISTANBUL (AP) — The two leading contenders for Istanbul mayor faced off in a political debate Sunday, a week before the city is set to hold a repeat of the election an opposition candidate won and Turkey's governing party successfully challenged.

Ruling party candidate Binali Yildirim and secular opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu argued during the live televised debate, a rarity in Turkey, over the election authority's decision to void the first mayoral election. Yildirim, a former Turkish prime minister, said the March 31 election had been "stolen" from him.

Imamoglu, a former district mayor backed by the Republican People's Party, or CHP, narrowly won the race to govern Turkey's largest city and commercial hub. He called Yildrim's claim "slanderous" and said he was the "elected mayor" who had been "cheated of rights."

Yildirim said the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, did not want to have the election repeated when it challenged the outcome. He claimed the rerun could have been avoided if there had been a full recount of all votes. The election authority's decision to void the vote came after weeks of partial recounts.

Fox TV journalist Ismail Kucukkaya moderated the 3-hour debate, a job that entailed managing heated moments such as when Yildirim repeatedly broke a debate rule of not talking over or directly responding to his opponent.

The candidates answered questions on an array of topics from the needs of young voters and women, to the economy and the need for green spaces in the city of 15 million. They also pushed plans to deal with the large number of Syrian refugees in Istanbul as Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians.

Imamoglu is campaigning on a promise to end divisions and embrace all voters while vowing to put an end to what he describes as wasteful and excessive spending by the municipality, which has been controlled by the AKP and an Islamic-based predecessor for 25 years.

Yildirim is running with his track record as a former transport minister, saying his experience will improve city management and transport, decreasing commute times in the city overwhelmed by traffic.

Televised election debates are uncommon in Turkey. The last one, between AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Deniz Baykal, the then-leader of the CHP, took place before a 2002. The AKP has been in power since. Erdogan is Turkey's president.

Erdogan, who began his rise to political power as Istanbul's mayor, downplayed the importance of the repeat mayoral election earlier Sunday.

Noting that his party held 25 of Istanbul's 39 districts and a majority in the city assembly, the president said the June 23 vote "is just for mayor, meaning only a change in the shop window."

Erdogan also questioned international media coverage of the Istanbul election, asking why journalists were interested in the local race.

The president, who is also the chairman of the ruling party, has spoken less frequently in the past weeks compared to his intense campaigning prior to the March vote, when he presented the local elections as a fight for national survival.