Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said on Thursday his jail sentence imposed this week was a punishment for his success, as opposition parties rally to support him and seek to challenge President Tayyip Erdogan ahead of next year’s elections.
A Turkish court on Wednesday sentenced Imamoglu to two years and seven months in prison and imposed a political ban, both of which must be confirmed by an appeals court. The verdict drew wide criticism at home and abroad as an abuse of democracy.
Imamoglu, seen as a strong potential challenger to Erdogan, called on the people of Turkey’s largest city to show “unity and solidarity” by joining him and the leaders of six opposition parties at the municipality headquarters at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT).
“Sometimes in our country, no success goes unpunished,” he said. “I see this meaningless and illegal punishment imposed on me as a reward for my success.”
Imamoglu was convicted for insulting public officials in a speech he made after he won Istanbul’s municipal election in 2019. Critics say Turkish courts bend to Erdogan’s will. The government says the judiciary is independent.
Presidential and parliamentary elections due to be held by June may be the biggest political challenge yet for Erdogan after two decades in power, as Turks cope with rising costs of living after a currency collapse and inflation surge.
The six-party opposition alliance formed against Erdogan, led by Imamoglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), has yet to agree their presidential candidate. Imamoglu has been mooted as a possible challenger and polls suggest he would defeat Erdogan.
Imamoglu was tried over a speech in which he said those who annulled the initial 2019 vote – in which he narrowly defeated a candidate from Erdogan’s AK Party – were “fools”. Imamoglu says his remark was a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu for using the same language against him.
After the initial results were annulled, he won the re-run vote comfortably, ending the 25-year rule in Turkey’s largest city by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors.