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Turkey's attempt to ban an Erdogan rival from politics is drawing a backlash

Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu leaves a rally in front of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality building in Istanbul on Dec. 14, following a Turkish court decision to sentence him to two years and seven months in prison for insulting election officials.
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Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu leaves a rally in front of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality building in Istanbul on Dec. 14, following a Turkish court decision to sentence him to two years and seven months in prison for insulting election officials.

ISTANBUL — A Turkish court decision this month to sentence Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to prison and bar him from politics for more than two years is proving unpopular. Critics say the ruling, handed down last Wednesday after the court convicted Imamoglu of insulting public officials, clearly favors President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, known by the acronym AKP.

The decision came as Erdogan's popularity remains low ahead of next year's presidential contest. It signals a potentially intense campaign season ahead, with Erdogan playing to his conservative, religious base of supporters. Elections must take place by June 23.

Hundreds of people took to the streets to protest Imamoglu's prison sentence and political ban. Former Erdogan ally and former Turkish President Abdullah Gul said, "The court's decision is a great injustice not only against Ekrem Imamoglu but also against Turkey. The will of the people is above all. I believe that the higher courts will correct this mistake."

Analysts say Imamoglu would clearly be among the strongest challengers to Erdogan's bid for another term in office, even though the mayor has never announced his candidacy for the presidency. Imamoglu called the court's decision a "disgrace for the Turkish judiciary," saying it was "the firmest expression of the fact that the judiciary has been transformed into an instrument to punish dissidents."

As a politician from Turkey's main secular party, the Republican People's Party, Imamoglu's surprise victory in the 2019 Istanbul mayoral race was seen as the biggest blow to the AKP since Erdogan rose to power, first as Turkey's prime minister, and then as its first president with strong executive powers.

The charges against Imamoglu stemmed from comments he made to the media in 2019, in which he described those responsible for canceling the first round of municipal elections, which he won, as "fools." He went on to win the next round decisively.

The mayor's supporters say he has been a favorite target of Erdogan and the AKP ever since he shocked some in the establishment with his 2019 mayoral victory. Critics allege that Turkey's judiciary over the years has been refashioned into a frequently pro-Erdogan body.

The government insists the judiciary has been and will remain independent.

An opinion survey by Turkey Report, a polling firm, found a solid majority of respondents — 64% — believe this month's ruling against Imamoglu was "unfair." Can Selcuki, director of Turkey Report, says just 14% described the ruling as fair, and 22% recorded no opinion. Some 62% of respondents called the ruling a political decision, rather than legal one.

The Biden administration deplored the ruling, with State Department spokesperson Ned Price saying in a statement that the conviction "is inconsistent with respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law."

Price's statement went on to say that the administration remains "gravely concerned by the continued judicial harassment of civil society, media, political and business leaders in Turkey, including through prolonged pretrial detention, overly broad claims of support for terrorism, and criminal insult cases."

The head of TUSIAD, Turkey's largest business association, also criticized the sentence, saying political bans "have no place in a democratic society."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a Justice and Development Party event in Mardin, Turkey, on Saturday.
/ Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a Justice and Development Party event in Mardin, Turkey, on Saturday.

For his part, President Erdogan said if there were any mistakes in the ruling, the appeals court would fix them — but in the meantime, Turks had no right to ignore legal rulings.

Erdogan added that he didn't care who the opposition nominates to run in next year's election.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.