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A Turkish court sentenced Erdogan’s rival to prison. That could backfire.

If the conviction stands, Istanbul’s popular mayor couldn’t run for president in 2023. But voters sometimes rebel against efforts to subvert democracy.

- December 21, 2022

Last week, a Turkish court sentenced Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to prison for “insulting” public officials. Imamoglu is a popular opposition figure who could plausibly beat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey’s 2023 elections, opinion polls suggest. The mayor is appealing his conviction. But if the court’s ruling is upheld, Imamoglu would be removed from office and banned from running in elections that are to be held by June 2023.

Can Erdogan win reelection simply by excluding his most popular rivals? That’s risky, research suggests, for two reasons: Higher courts may not uphold Imamoglu’s conviction, and prosecuting opponents may set off voter backlash.

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What this court case does (and doesn’t) mean

Despite the criminal court’s sentence, Imamoglu is still in office and has not yet been banned from politics.

It’s also unlikely that Imamoglu will go to prison. The sentence of two years, seven months and 15 days is below the threshold for mandatory prison time and can be converted to probation. However, if higher courts uphold the conviction, Imamoglu would be banned from holding or running for office during his sentence.

If both the regional court of appeals and Turkey’s Court of Cassation, the supreme court of appeals in this case, rule against Imamoglu before June 2023, he would be unable to run for president, and ineligible for reelection as Istanbul’s mayor in 2024. Furthermore, the Istanbul city council would select his replacement. Because Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) controls the city council, an Erdogan ally would almost certainly take charge of Turkey’s largest city.

But research on Turkey’s judiciary suggests that the higher courts may not rule that quickly.

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Will Turkey’s higher courts go along?

Turkey’s opposition sees Imamoglu’s conviction as politically motivated. Imamoglu described the decision as “an attack on the will of millions of Istanbulites.” A judge who was previously assigned Imamoglu’s case reported that he was pressured to impose a political ban and was dismissed from the case.

Imamoglu will now appeal the verdict, which becomes final only after two higher courts uphold his conviction. Ordinarily, appeals take a year or longer to move through Turkey’s higher courts, leaving Imamoglu free to run for office for some time.

However, higher courts sometimes move more swiftly in politically salient cases. For instance, in 2018, an appeals court acted at an almost record-breaking pace, taking just weeks to uphold the conviction of Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party and a two-time presidential candidate, for terrorist propaganda. That could certainly happen again this time. Imamoglu’s prosecutors have already appealed the decision, apparently hoping to get a quick and final ruling against Istanbul’s mayor.

But will Turkey’s higher courts go along? Appeals courts have panels of judges, making them less susceptible to political influence than the single judge who convicted Imamoglu. Judges on Turkey’s higher courts, especially the Constitutional Court, are “not fully obedient,” as law professor Bertil Emrah Oder’s research shows. If the higher courts consider Imamoglu’s case at a normal pace — or even drag their feet to strategically prolong the appeals process — Imamoglu would be able to run in 2023.

Ultimately, Erdogan’s own popularity may shape how judges behave. Even when judges aren’t fully independent from political pressure, they often rule against the government when the incumbent is likely to lose the upcoming elections, political scientist Gretchen Helmke’s research has found. Turkey’s inflation is galloping at more than 80 percent a year. If Erdogan’s popularity continues to sag, judges may become more willing to rule in the opposition’s favor.

See all TMC analysis of Turkey’s politics here.

Will this verdict help or hurt Erdogan at the polls?

But inflation’s not the only danger Erdogan faces: This court case could come back to bite him in next year’s elections. To be sure, Erdogan’s ability to use state institutions against opponents tilts the political playing field heavily in his favor. But as political scientist Milan Svolik argues, voters sometimes rebel against efforts to subvert democracy.

The elections that brought Imamoglu to power are the perfect example of how illiberal leaders can miscalculate. After Erdogan’s handpicked candidate for mayor of Istanbul narrowly lost to Imamoglu in March 2019, Erdogan and his party alleged irregularities and called for a rerun election. In that rerun, Imamoglu’s margin of victory soared from less than 14,000 votes to a landslide of more than 800,000.

As Svolik’s research finds, the government’s attempt to overturn the first election fueled Imamoglu’s victory in three ways. More pro-opposition voters came out to vote. Fewer pro-government voters went to the polls. And most surprisingly, even though Turkey is one of the most polarized countries worldwide, some voters switched sides.

Ironically, Erdogan’s own ascent shows how violations of democratic norms can galvanize voters. After Erdogan won the 1994 election for mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s secularist political establishment had him charged with inciting hatred for reciting a poem, leading to a prison sentence and a ban from politics. Far from ending Erdogan’s career, the case generated a perception of injustice that “maximized Erdogan’s popularity,” as writer Kaya Genc puts it.

Already, observers have called Imamoglu’s conviction a “game changer” because it helped unite Turkey’s opposition coalition, a group of six parties known as the “Table of Six” that have agreed to nominate a joint presidential candidate. The six parties immediately organized a rally in Imamoglu’s defense, attracting thousands of supporters and key opposition leaders.

Standing beside Imamoglu on the night of the verdict, opposition politician Meral Aksener stated, “It’s when [governments] are afraid that they oppress and carry out injustices.” Only Turkey’s 2023 elections — and the legal battles preceding it — will tell whether the conviction of Istanbul’s mayor was a sign of Erdogan’s strength or a gross miscalculation.

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Andrew O’Donohue is a PhD candidate in Harvard University’s department of government and a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow.

Cem Tecimer is a doctoral candidate in law (SJD) at Harvard Law School.