ISTANBUL: Istanbul’s popular mayor tried to fight off a ban from politics on Wednesday in a trial stemming from his stunning election victory over a close ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2019.
Ekrem Imamoglu’s fate is being watched closely for signs of judicial independence nine months before a general election in which Erdogan will struggle to extend his two-decade rule.
The 52-year-old mayor is the most internationally recognized of the opposition leaders who might run against Erdogan.
He also has the most intense personal rivalry with the powerful Turkish leader.
AFP reporters saw police seal off the roads leading to the Istanbul trial courthouse with metal fences as a security precaution aimed at keeping away protesters in the highly anticipated trial.
The mayor was planning to appear in court to hear the verdict either later Wednesday or before the end of the week.
Imamoglu was stripped of his narrow March 2019 win over the ruling party’s candidate after Erdogan — who launched his own career as Istanbul mayor and viewed the city as his second home — refused to recognize the result.
Election officials reported discovering hundreds of thousands of “suspicious votes” after Imamoglu had already been sworn into office.
Their decision to call a re-run election for that June sparked global condemnation and mobilized a groundswell of support for Imamoglu that included former ruling party voters.
Imamoglu won the second election by more than 800,000 votes.
But the usually soft-spoken mayor let his lingering bitterness at the ruling party spill over in November 2019.
“Those who canceled the March 31 election are idiots,” he told reporters at the time.
Erdogan’s ruling party seized on the remark and sued the mayor for “insulting” public officials.
Prosecutors have asked for Imamoglu to be banned from politics and jailed for 15 months — a relatively light sentence that almost never sees people put behind bars.
Defense lawyer Kemal Polat said the mayor would immediately appeal against any ban and keep his job while the case wound its way through the courts.
“Imamoglu can remain in his current position as mayor until the end of the appeals process. He would not have to resign,” Polat said.
Turkey’s Western allies accuse Erdogan of stacking the courts with allies and using them to jail his rivals in the aftermath of a failed military putsch in 2016.
Erdogan responded to the coup attempt with sweeping purges that saw thousands jailed on “terrorism” and other charges.
Everyone from human rights leaders and civil servants to opposition politicians — many of them from the main pro-Kurdish party — were jailed in mass trials that instilled fear across swathes of Turkish society.
Turkey’s status as a strategic member of NATO and a Muslim-majority democracy in a volatile part of the world has helped to preserve Erdogan’s ties with the West.
But the saga over the 2019 vote turned Imamoglu into a global figure whose sentencing could raise the diplomatic stakes ahead of next year’s vote.
The court case comes with Turkey’s fractured opposition parties still arguing over which candidate to field against Erdogan next June.
Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas — elected mayor of Ankara in 2019 — have emerged as two of the more popular opposition options because of their success at the ballot box.
Polls show both Imamoglu and Yavas beating Erdogan in a run-off election that would be called if no one picked up 50 percent of the vote in the first round.
Imamoglu’s office accused the ruling party of trying to “eliminate him from the upcoming elections.”
The mayor himself appeared to the bracing for legal battles in the months ahead that ruled him out of next year’s elections.
He threw his support on Tuesday behind the candidacy of the main opposition CHP party’s leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
“Today you are the main opposition leader, tomorrow you will be in charge of the country,” he told Kilicdaroglu.