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No clear winner in first televised Istanbul mayoral debate in nearly two decades

Neither Ekrem Imamoglu nor Binali Yildirim pulled out a decisive victory in debate, new opinion poll shows
Millions of people tuned in to the Istanbul mayoral debate on Sunday evening (Reuters)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

Neither of Istanbul's top two mayoral candidates was able to pull out a decisive victory in a televised debate on Sunday night, a new poll has indicated, less than a week before voters will cast their ballots in a critical election re-run.

Forty-six percent of viewers said they preferred Ekrem Imamoglu, the secular-leaning opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) candidate for mayor, according to polling company MAK's results, released on Monday.

With that, Imamoglu slightly edged out Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister from the ruling AK Party, who garnered 44 percent of support, MAK said.

The company polled 33,000 people by telephone, 65 percent of whom watched the debate partly or in its entirety.

Millions of people tuned in to the Istanbul mayoral debate on Sunday evening, the first to be held in the last 17 years.

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It was broadcast jointly by several major Turkish television channels, and thousands of other viewers also were able to watch the programme on giant screens set up all over Turkey's largest city.

Each candidate had three minutes to answer several questions fired off by Ismail Kucukkaya, an anchorman with Fox Haber who moderated the debate.

Several analysts interviewed by MEE criticised both candidates for failing to use their allotted time to explain their respective political agendas, accusing them instead of focusing on trivial details.

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"It was a little testy for Imamoglu, who carefully crafted an image on social media that presented him as a soft-spoken orator," Yalcin Ari, a prominent media analyst, told MEE.

"However, on traditional forms, such as TV appearances, he seems to be feeling restricted and cannot manage well," Ari said. 

"Yildirim had a better performance. Yet he also had some problems in laying down his agenda."

Many on social media, however, said they were happy to see both candidates sitting in the same studio and politely answering questions, a rarity in Turkey's polarised political environment.

"This debate is unlikely to have a significant impact on the outcome even in terms of mobilising stay-home voters," said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, a Turkey director at the German Marshall Fund think tank in Ankara.

"It will certainly contribute to mitigating polarisation in Turkey," said Unluhisarcikli.

Imamoglu and Yildirim also posed for a picture with their families at the end of the debate, underlying the importance of co-existence in the country, according to Kucukkaya, the debate moderator.

The debate comes more than a month after the Istanbul election results were cancelled amid allegations that polling stations were unlawfully staffed.

In early May, Turkey's Supreme Election Board (YSK) suspended the results from the first election in March and ordered a re-run be held on 23 June.

As a result, Imamoglu - who won the first vote by less than 15,000 votes - was removed from office.

'Democracy warrior'

During the debate on Sunday, Imamoglu attempted to portray himself as a victim of the YSK's contentious decision, describing himself as a "democracy warrior".

Yildirim, on the other hand, tried to confront his opponent with his own past, controversial statements, such as video footage allegedly showing Imamoglu insulting a governor.

The moderator also asked about each candidate's policies regarding the more than half a million Syrian refugees living in Istanbul - a subject that has become increasingly delicate as Turkey's economy has struggled over the past year.

Yildirim said the Istanbul municipality would continue to take care of Syrian refugees under his leadership, yet issued a stern warning that criminals wouldn't get a free hand and would be deported from the city.

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Imamoglu, rather than talking about the long-term future of the refugees, said he would create a special desk to look after Syrian women and children.

He also addressed a decision last week in Antalya and Bursa, two CHP-run district municipalities, to bar Syrian refugees from visiting beaches, amid accusations that the refugees were setting up make-shift camps and disturbing the public. 

"I oppose the beach bans imposed by other municipalities against Syrians, even though those municipalities are affiliated with my party," Imamoglu said.

Several sources close to the AKP told MEE that the party had altered its campaign strategy in an attempt to win more support for Yildrim this time around.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is noticeably absent from the mayoral campaign, and Yildrim has taken several steps to court Kurdish voters, who are key to any election victory in Istanbul.

According to several polls released in recent days, Imamoglu currently holds a lead of at least two percentage points over Yildirim.

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