Ekrem Imamoglu, mayoral candidate for Istanbul from Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, speaks supporters at a rally for his campaign for the June 23 re-run elections, in Esenyurt district in Istanbul. Image Credit: AP

Istanbul - The opposition candidate trying to wrest control of Istanbul in elections this week received critical backing from a prominent Kurdish politician who’s been in prison for the past two and a half years.

Selahattin Demirtas, the former leader of the Peoples’ Democratic party, or HDP, called on Istanbul residents to support Ekrem Imamoglu instead of voting for “enmity - deepening social polarisation further - or for revenge, hatred or grudges.”

Writing on Twitter from a high security prison in Turkey’s western Edirne province, Demirtas said he believes “Mr. Imamoglu’s statements should be supported.”

The outcome of the mayoral contest may hang on how the Kurds vote on June 23. Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, is again fielding Imamoglu, who was initially deemed the winner of Istanbul’s March 31 race but served only 18 days after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party successfully challenged the results.

Comments by Demirtas, one of the most influential voices among Turkish Kurds, could prove significant in the rerun. Kurds played an important role in the March poll after he urged HDP voters in the country’s west to cast their ballots “strategically” to punish the ruling party and its nationalist ally.

About 300,000 Kurds known to be supporting the AKP in Istanbul largely shunned the ballot box on March 31, according to HDP lawmaker Imam Tascier. More than 2 million Kurdish voters are believed to be living in Istanbul, a city of more than 10 million, and about 1.3 million of them back the HDP, he said.

The European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled in November that Turkey should release Demirtas, finding that his prolonged detention was designed to restrict political freedoms during elections.