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Opposition leader Ekrem Imamoglu has been handed a jail sentence and a politics ban ahead of the general elections in 2023.

A Turkish court has sentenced Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to jail and imposed a political ban on the opposition politician, who is seen as a strong potential challenger to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in next year’s general election.

Imamoglu was on Wednesday sentenced to two years and seven months in prison along with the ban, both of which must be confirmed by an appeals court, for insulting election officials in a speech he made after he won Istanbul’s municipal election in 2019.

Here is a look at Imamoglu’s case and what this means for the presidential vote:

Who is Imamoglu?

  • Imamoglu is the mayor of Istanbul, the country’s most populous city.
  • He was elected in 2019 representing Turkey’s leading opposition force, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), in one of the biggest losses Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has experienced since it came into power in 2002.
  • Polls show the 52-year-old is among a handful of opposition leaders who could beat Erdogan in a head-to-head race at the vote due next June.

What is the trial about?

  • Imamoglu was tried for defamation over a speech after Istanbul mayoral elections in June 2019.
  • He said those who annulled an initial vote held three months earlier – in which he narrowly defeated a candidate from AK Party – were “fools”.
  • The AK Party refused to acknowledge Imamoglu’s initial win. Erdogan first rose to prominence in Turkey when he was voted in as the mayor of Istanbul in 1994.
  • Waves of protests and a groundswell of support delivered Imamoglu an overwhelming victory in the rerun vote.
  • Imamoglu said his “fools” remark was a response to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu for using the same language against him.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu addresses his supporters on top of a bus
Imamoglu addressed his supporters on top of a bus as they gathered in front of his office in Istanbul on Wednesday [Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality/Reuters]

What were the reactions to the verdict?

  • Hundreds of Imamoglu supporters rallied on Wednesday at the municipal headquarters chanting “government resign” after the verdict was read out.
  • Climbing atop a bus to address the crowd, Imamoglu said the verdict marked a “profound unlawfulness” that “proved that there is no justice in today’s Turkey”.
  • Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said the ruling was not politically motivated. “No organ, authority or person can give orders and instructions, send circulars, make recommendations or suggestions to courts and judges in the exercise of judicial power,” Bozdag said.
  • The US State Department said it was “deeply troubled and disappointed” by the sentence. “This unjust sentence is inconsistent with respect for human rights, with respect to fundamental freedoms and rule of law,” department principal deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said.
  • The European Parliament rapporteur on Turkey, Nacho Sanchez Amor, also criticised the verdict.

What can we expect next?

  • The defamation trial also applied a separate clause of the penal code that bars the mayor from taking part in politics, effectively preventing him from standing in next June’s presidential election.
  • Imamoglu’s team decided to appeal his conviction.
  • A jail sentence or political ban on Imamoglu will need to be upheld in appeals courts, potentially extending an outcome to the case until after the expected elections.
  • Imamoglu is unlikely to actually go to prison as people sentenced to less than four years are rarely put behind bars in Turkey.
  • Imamoglu will continue in his post as mayor of Istanbul while his appeal winds its way through the courts.

How will this affect elections?

  • The outcome of next year’s elections is seen as hinging on the ability of the CHP and others in the opposition to join forces around a single candidate to challenge Erdogan and the AK Party.
  • A six-party opposition alliance has yet to agree on their presidential candidate.
  • Erdogan’s domination of Turkish politics has been shaken by an ongoing economic crisis, but more recent polls show Erdogan’s ratings beginning to recover thanks to his widely praised handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The verdict places even more pressure on the opposition to put aside their personal rivalries in the election campaign.

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