ISTANBUL: A Turkish court on Wednesday postponed until November a highly contentious trial that would see Istanbul’s popular mayor barred from politics over a remark he made after beating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ally in 2019 polls could.
The fate of Ekrem Imamoglu is being closely watched for signs of judicial independence nine months ahead of the parliamentary elections in which Erdogan will fight to extend his two-decade rule.
The 52-year-old mayor is the most internationally recognized of the opposition leaders who could run against Erdogan.
But a court could bar him from seeking higher office – and possibly force him to give up his post – as punishment for a casual remark he made about Erdogan’s ruling party after the heated race for mayor.
Imamoglu’s office accuses the ruling party of trying to “exclude him from the upcoming elections.”
Imamoglu’s office said the trial was adjourned to November 11 shortly after it began on Wednesday.
The hearing itself was closed to reporters – an unusual move in Turkey.
Police also cordoned off the streets leading to the courthouse with metal fences to keep protesters out at the much-anticipated trial.
Imamoglu was stripped of his narrow March 2019 victory over the ruling party candidate after Erdogan – who launched his own career as mayor of Istanbul and considers the city his second home – refused to recognize the result.
Election officials reported spotting hundreds of thousands of “suspicious votes” after Imamoglu was already sworn in.
Her decision to schedule a repeat election for this June sparked global condemnation and mobilized a wave of support for Imamoglu, which included voters from the former ruling party.
Imamoglu won the second election with more than 800,000 votes.
But the normally soft-spoken mayor let his ongoing bitterness towards the ruling party spill over in November 2019.
“Those who canceled the March 31 elections are idiots,” he told reporters at the time.
Erdogan’s ruling party seized on the remark and sued the mayor for “insulting” officials.
Prosecutors have demanded that Imamoglu be removed from politics and jailed for 15 months – a relatively light sentence that almost never puts people behind bars.
Defense attorney Kemal Polat said the mayor would immediately appeal a ban and keep his job while the case goes through the courts.
“Imamoglu can remain in his current position as mayor until the appeal process is completed. He wouldn’t have to resign,” said Polat.
Turkey’s western allies accuse Erdogan of overloading the courts with allies and using them to imprison his rivals after a failed military coup in 2016.
Erdogan responded to the attempted coup with a sweeping purge that jailed thousands on “terrorism” and other charges.
Everyone from human rights leaders and officials to opposition politicians – many of them from the main pro-Kurdish party – have been jailed in mass trials that instilled fear in broad sections of Turkish society.
Turkey’s status as a strategic member of NATO and as a Muslim-majority democracy in a volatile part of the world has helped preserve Erdogan’s links with the West.
But the 2019 vote saga made Imamoglu a global figure whose condemnation could raise the diplomatic stakes ahead of next year’s vote.
The court case comes with Turkey’s fragmented opposition parties still bickering over which candidate should run against Erdogan next June.
Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas – elected Mayor of Ankara in 2019 – have emerged as two of the most popular opposition options due to their success at the ballot box.
The mayor himself appeared to be bracing for legal battles in the coming months that would bar him from next year’s election.
He supported the candidacy of the head of the largest opposition party, CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu on Tuesday.
“Today you are the main opposition leader, tomorrow you will rule the country,” he told Kilicdaroglu.