Sunday’s vote was held because election authorities controversially annulled Imamoglu’s initial historic election victory in March on a technicality after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan disputed the defeat of his candidate.
Electoral authorities rejected Erdogan’s AKP Party’s claims of voting fraud, but ordered a revote on the grounds a number election officials were ineligible. The opposition condemned the decision and claimed the Sunday vote is now more than just about who runs the city.
In a sign of the importance of Sunday’s election, voting was brisk from the moment the Kadikoy district ballot station opened, in a city where people traditionally vote late. Early heavy voting was reported across the city.
“The election is very important for Turkey, this will change the face of Turkey,” said retiree Cengiz Demir, one of the first to vote in Kadikoy district. “We have to return to democratic settings. Maybe more than a majority have had enough of one man rule,” he added.
One man rule is a reference to President Erdogan who many of his opponents accuse of undermining democracy and turning Turkey into an authoritarian state.
“In the name of our Turkey, in the name of our Istanbul, we are going through a very important election,” Imamoglu said to hundreds of supporters after voting. “This is not only about the Istanbul metropolitan, municipal election but at the same time a day for the repair the damage of this unlawful process imposed on our nation for the sake of democracy in Turkey.”
Observers say Imamoglu’s strategy of avoiding polarizing politics and pledging inclusivity has been key to turning his CHP party’s fortunes around in the city.
“I have so many hopes for Turkey,” said Ayse, a teacher who only wanted to be identified by her first name, “Imamoglu is the only person who can make the change. Before I was so pessimistic.”
The importance of Sunday’s election has seen hundreds of thousands of people cut short their vacations to vote. The city’s airports and roads were full the night before the polls opened.
“This is so important,” said Deniz Tas speaking after voting, “I have traveled 12 hours on the road to vote and to right this injustice that has been done.”
Istanbul is Erdogan’s home city and has been his power-base for 25 years, since his rise to power started as the city’s mayor. The city accounts for a third of Turkey’s economy and nearly half the taxation, and the mayorship is widely seen as Turkey’s most important political prize after the presidency.
Underscoring the importance of the vote, Erdogan has again put his political prestige on the line, campaigning heavily for Yildirm in the run-up to the election. Erdogan too claims democracy is at stake, repeatedly accusing the opposition of voter manipulation. Observers say a second defeat for Erdogan could have significant consequences, damaging his reputation of electoral invincibility empowering opponents both in and outside his party.
In what was a bitter campaign Yildirim appeared conciliatory. “If we’ve ever made any wrongdoing to any rival or brother in Istanbul, I would like to ask for their forgiveness and blessing,” he said after casting his vote.
Some AKP supporters expressed similar sentiments. “Re-vote happens in other countries, too, the voting can be repeated,” said a woman who didn’t want to be named. “It is very normal that we have a repeat as well. The candidate who deserves it should win. The person with experience will win. Also, for us, Binali Yildirim has the experience to run Istanbul.”
Both the leading candidates mobilizing thousands of lawyers and monitors to scrutinize the vote, claiming to defend democracy, Istanbul is bracing itself for a tense election.