Opposition Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu said in an interview on Jan. 8 that local elections in March will deliver a message to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's government about the Turkish people's desire for "democracy, justice and the rule of law."
İmamoğlu, 52, acknowledged his re-election bid will be more difficult than his initial victory five years ago because opposition parties are no longer in alliance against candidates from Erdoğan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
But İmamoğlu - who governs Turkey's biggest city and is the opposition's highest-profile leader nationwide - told Reuters he is confident of defeating a newly-named AKP challenger Murat Kurum, a former government minister.
"We want to see and experience a process where this city can send its messages to Turkey in terms of democracy, justice and rule of law," said İmamoğlu, of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).
"If this happens of course there will be several messages sent to the government. Let them worry about that," he said.
Erdoğan's critics say that Turkey's judiciary, civil rights and press freedoms have eroded under his watch, charges the government denies.
On May 2023, Erdoğan won re-election as Turkey's president while his AKP and its allies took a majority in parliamentary elections, illustrating the challenge faced by a dispirited opposition in the nationwide municipal elections on March 31.
As part of the fallout, the CHP and other opposition parties, including nationalists Good (İYİ) and pro-Kurdish Peoples' Equality and Democracy (DEM) Party, have not agreed to field shared candidates in big cities, many of which they won together in 2019.
İmamoğlu said he can win voters from other opposition parties and from the AKP.
"The fact is that it will be tougher than the last election," İmamoğlu said at his offices overlooking the Bosphorus Strait intersecting Istanbul. "Back then, the alliances were in a clearer position."
İmamoğlu's election in 2019 ended 25 years of rule in Istanbul by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors, and represented a sharp defeat for Erdoğan given he too once served as the city's mayor.
The AKP contested the vote and demanded a re-run, but İmamoğlu won that by an even larger margin. He called the 2019 vote - in which the AKP also lost the capital Ankara and other cities - a "turning point" for Turkish politics.
Despite what he describes as pressure and obstacles from the central government, İmamoğlu said his administration has delivered services and development in Istanbul.
"The public banks did not provide us with any financial opportunities. Despite all this, I would like to say that we had a period of great success," he said.
Erdoğan said AKP mayoral candidate Kurum was appointed on Jan. 7 to "bring Istanbul out of the interregnum" of the last five years. İmamoğlu said Kurum's candidature has no impact on his chances as both politicians start their campaigns.
In the interview, the mayor also said he was "not concerned at all" about a 2.5-year prison sentence and political ban handed down by a court for insulting public officials after his 2019 election win.
The court of appeals has not approved the sentence, which the opposition said is evidence of Erdoğan's willingness to intervene in judicial matters.