Outrage over a jail term for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most formidable political rival will bring disparate opposition leaders together in a rally for the first time on Thursday.
The six leaders will meet in Istanbul to show support for the city’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, who was convicted on Wednesday of insulting election officials, six months ahead of a crucial ballot.
Dubbed the Nation Alliance, those parties have drawn together in opposition to Erdogan. But they have faced backlash from supporters for failing to provide a unified stance or even put forward a single candidate to face Erdogan, Turkey’s longest-serving leader.
They remain unlikely to announce Imamoglu as their joint candidate just yet, but the court ruling has injected dynamism into the presidential race.
“The ruling is unlikely to swiftly knock out Imamoglu as a potential candidate,” Emre Peker, Europe director for Eurasia Group, said in an emailed note. “Imamoglu’s trial stands to galvanize the opposition.”
Markets showed signs of a rebound on Thursday after investors sold Turkish assets and the lira declined the previous day over the court ruling.
Erdogan was making ground among undecided voters in recent months and had the upper hand against the opposition. That’s despite a cost-of-living crisis, with food inflation at more than 100%.
Some of the rebound in support has been down to the president’s role in navigating the standoff between Russia and Turkey’s western allies, analysts say, but also the state of the opposition.
The parties have been at odds over the choice of their joint candidate. The main opposition party CHP has been pushing for its head, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who’s led it to losses against Erdogan in nine separate elections.
Imamoglu, also a member of the CHP, is more popular, younger and has a wider appeal, according to opinion polls. And he comes with a track record that no other potential contender has: he beat Erdogan’s party twice at the ballot box.
It’s still unclear how the court ruling could affect Imamoglu’s ability to stand in elections. He’ll continue to serve as Istanbul’s mayor pending appeals of Wednesday’s ruling to higher courts.
Their decision is unlikely in the coming months due to the massive backlog of cases courts consider. But the process can be expedited, in which case Imamoglu can find himself exonerated or barred from politics while still on the campaign trail.
The 52-year-old mayor of Turkey’s largest city won the municipal vote by a tiny margin in March 2019, but election officials decided to annul the result amid pressure from Erdogan’s aides. In a ballot do-over, Imamoglu won by a landslide.
He also showed his appeal could reach Erdogan’s traditional electoral base. Videos that showed him reciting Islam’s holy book inside a historic Istanbul mosque went viral during the 2019 local election campaign. His last name means “son of an imam” and resonates with the country’s religiously conservative voter base.
It was the mayor’s rapid rise that put him in harm’s way.
Months after Imamoglu took office, he said people who pushed for an annulment of the ballot outcome were fools. Election judges sued him in response on the grounds that he insulted public officials — a crime in Turkey — and spurred a years-long judicial process that led to his conviction.
CHP leader Kilicdaroglu is resisting the idea of naming Imamoglu as the candidate despite growing pressure on him to step aside and support a more popular contender, according to officials of opposition parties familiar with the discussions.
Iyi Party, the second-biggest member of the opposition bloc, sees the mayor as their best chance to defeat Erdogan. But the party’s chairwoman, Meral Aksener, is unlikely to rush the bloc into a decision on the candidate, the people said, asking not to be identified while discussing internal deliberations.
Those considerations will prevent an immediate announcement on Imamoglu’s candidacy, who will continue to serve as Istanbul’s mayor until appeals of Wednesday’s ruling are heard.
The turmoil around Imamoglu’s conviction has parallels in Erdogan’s own ascent to power.
Imamoglu’s conviction will provide a similar boost to the opposition, Iyi’s Aksener said. Ruling party officials are dismissing similarities, saying that Imamoglu can still go free should the conviction be overturned.
The Turkish president himself lost his seat as Istanbul’s mayor more than two decades ago after he was imprisoned for reciting a poem that courts said incited religious hatred. Erdogan’s political career got a boost from his imprisonment, catapulting him to the leadership of the newly-established AK Party shortly after he came out of jail.
As for Erdogan, the president made clear on Thursday that he has no plans to exit the political scene any time soon. Even the end of a possible new presidential term in 2028 “doesn’t mean Tayyip Erdogan would quit politics,” he told reporters.