The political opposition in Turkey was confronted with a new challenge on 14 December when an Istanbul court sentenced Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu to two years, seven months, and 15 days in prison for insulting the Turkish Supreme Election Council (SEC).
İmamoğlu had run and won the race for mayor in the municipal elections in March 2019. Yielding to pressures from the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the SEC cancelled the results and called for a rerun, which İmamoğlu then won by a greater margin.
In November 2019, he told the media that “those who cancelled the 31 March  election results were fools.”
The sentence, if upheld on appeal, also bans İmamoğlu from political office and other activities for its duration. This would eliminate him as a potential candidate to run against Erdogan in Turkey’s presidential elections in June.
Many political scientists believe that the idea of the “strong and charismatic leader” plays an important part in Turkey’s political culture. Some Turks see İmamoğlu as such a figure, including large numbers outside the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to which he belongs.
His popularity has risen since his election as Istanbul mayor, while Erdogan’s and his AKP Party’s ratings have plummeted against the backdrop of the country’s economic straits and deteriorating standards of living.
İmamoğlu’s removal as a potential contender in the June elections could throw the opposition into disarray, particularly as little holds it together apart from a shared animosity towards Erdogan.
The sentence handed down against İmamoğlu has already fueled tensions in the opposition camp over a potential single candidate that it could field against the sitting president. It would be a tall order for the opposition to come up with an alternative to İmamoğlu, who in addition to his popular appeal and record of accomplishments in local government also has a gift for rhetoric and a persuasiveness that can even win over political opponents.
He won in the Istanbul municipal elections in large measure on the strength of his campaign slogan that he would be a “mayor for all Istanbulites”. The slogan was designed to contrast İmamoğlu to Erdogan, whom many perceive as being a partisan president focused on advancing the interests of his political party and his clique of interest groups.
Since his election, İmamoğlu has also proven true to his pledge, reaching out to political forces outside the CHP and to broad segments of the Turkish public. Moreover, he has also established a positive image among some western powers and has met with European ambassadors to Turkey as well as visiting foreign dignitaries.
Many European leaders would undoubtedly welcome his presidency with a sigh of relief after years of butting heads with Erdogan over a host of contentious issues.
Without İmamoğlu, the opposition camp might also find it hard to win over Turkey’s Kurdish voters. While the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is not a member of the “Table of Six”, as the opposition alliance is called, it is inclined to support İmamoğlu who favours the resumption of the reconciliation process with the Kurds.
Without a potential presidential candidate such as İmamoğlu to serve as a kind of cement, the members of the opposition alliance could fall into discord. The Future Party, led by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and the Democracy and Progress Party, led by former minister of foreign affairs and former minister of economy Ali Babacan, take issue with some of the political views of leader of the CHP Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Davutoglu and Babacan may fear that if they back Kilicdaroglu as a presidential candidate, the opposition coalition will lose support among moderate religious conservatives in Turkey, a segment of society that Erdogan and his AKP also target.
Davutoglu and Babacan were themselves AKP members before breaking with Erdogan and taking a significant segment of the AKP base with them. That base might revert to supporting Erdogan if the two men now back the more liberal secularist Kilicdaroglu.
It should also be noted that no sooner had the Istanbul court handed down its verdict against İmamoğlu than others around the Table of Six voiced an interest in running for president. Foremost among them was Meral Aksener, leader of the IYI (Good) Party.
Kilicdaroglu, as the head of Turkey’s largest opposition party, believes he should be the coalition’s presidential candidate, but he may be headed for a clash with Aksener over this and other issues. Aksener originally hails from the nationalist right.
Clearly, the Table of Six stands at a crossroads, one path from which leads to collapse. But this is not inevitable, even given the challenges presented by İmamoğlu’s possible removal from the equation.
While the alliance members have some significant ideological differences, they still share the goal of abolishing the executive presidential system through which Erdogan has consolidated so much power and to restore the rule of law, judicial autonomy, and civil liberties under a resuscitated parliamentary system.
Future Party Leader Ahmet Davutoglu was speaking for all members of the alliance when he said in December that the alliance “still stands” and that it was the fruit of efforts that would not go to waste.
The opposition might also be able to turn the court ruling against İmamoğlu in their favour. Most observers have no doubt that it was politically motivated and intended to remove a strong opposition candidate ahead of the elections.
The international rights group Human Rights Watch voiced the opinion of many advocacy groups when Tom Porteous, the organisation’s deputy programme director, said that “the verdict against Ekrem İmamoğlu is a travesty of justice and an attack on the democratic process, demonstrating that as the 2023 elections approach the government is prepared to misuse the courts to sideline or silence key opposition figures.”
It is not the first time that the Erdogan regime has gone after İmamoğlu. In late December 2021, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu claimed that the mayor had hired hundreds of municipal personnel with links to “terrorist groups” such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Fethullah Gulen “Hizmet” Movement.
Given the general awareness of the political nature of his trial, the court ruling against İmamoğlu may be a setback for the opposition and feed discord in their ranks, but it will not cause it to rupture.
The members of the Table of Six are unlikely to let their separate political ambitions or different ideological views override their shared determination to beat Erdogan and the ruling AKP in the upcoming elections and set the country on course to the restoration of parliamentary life, civil and political rights, and judicial autonomy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly