Thousands of people rallied in Turkey to oppose the conviction and political ban of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, chanting slogans criticising President Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party before elections next year.
A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced Imamoglu, a popular rival to Erdogan, to two years and seven months in prison, which like the ban must be confirmed by an appeals court. The verdict drew wide criticism at home and abroad as an abuse of democracy.
Late on Thursday, media reports said the prosecutor in the case had launched a legal challenge to the verdict, seeking a longer jail sentence for Imamoglu. No further details were immediately available.
As patriotic music blared, the crowd waved Turkish flags in front of Istanbul’s municipality building, from which was draped a huge portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder whose secular principles Erdogan’s opponents say are under threat.
“Rights, law, justice. … The day will come when the AKP is called to account,” the crowd chanted.
Next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, due to be held by June, could prove one of the biggest political challenges to Erdogan’s two decades in power, as Turks grapple with surging living costs and a plunging currency. The lira fell to a record low against the dollar this week.
“The government is afraid and that’s why there was such a verdict. Nobody can stop this nation,” said Filiz Kumbasar, 56, who travelled to the rally from Duzce, a town 200 km (125 miles) from Istanbul, Turkey’s commercial hub of 16 million people.
Imamoglu was convicted of insulting public officials in a speech he made after he won Istanbul’s election in 2019. Critics say Turkish courts bend to Erdogan’s will. The government says the judiciary is independent.
“You beat them two times already and you’ll do it again,” Imamoglu told the crowd, referring to an initial vote in 2019 that he won but which was annulled and a re-run that followed and which he also won.
“All 16 million Istanbulites, our nation and our big Turkey alliance is behind me. We will change this order in the election next year,” he said.
The six-party opposition alliance formed against Erdogan, led by Imamoglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), has yet to agree on a presidential candidate. Imamoglu has been mooted as a possible challenger and polls suggest he would defeat Erdogan.
The court ruling, if upheld, would bar him from running.
“We are here today to protect our rights and the votes of millions of people from Istanbul. We are here because we want to live in a country where there’s rule of law,” said Aslihan Gulhan, who works in the tourism sector.
Imamoglu was tried over a speech in which he said those who annulled the initial 2019 vote – in which he narrowly defeated an AKP candidate – were “fools”. Imamoglu says his remark was a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who he said used the same language against him.
His comfortable win in the re-run vote ended the 25-year rule in Istanbul of the AKP and its Islamist predecessors.