People walk past posters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Ekrem Imamoglu, right, Istanbul's mayoral candidate of the secular opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, ahead of June 23 re-run of Istanbul elections, in Istanbul. Image Credit: AP

Istanbul- Voters in Istanbul return to the polls Sunday for a rerun of an election for mayor of the city. After weeks of uncertainty, Turkey’s top electoral body cancelled the March 31 vote that had resulted in a narrow win for candidate opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The ruling party argued that the initial vote was marred by irregularities but the opposition insists victory was snatched from its hands.

Here’s a look at the tightly contested race seen by many as a test for democracy in this country of nearly 80 million people.

The vote

The election is taking place again because Turkey’s electoral board ordered a rerun after ruling in favour of the governing party, on the grounds that some officials overseeing the vote were not civil servants as required by law. The controversial decision raised questions over Turkey’s democratic process and whether Erdogan’s ruling party, in power since 2002, would be willing to accept electoral defeat.

Sunday’s vote is to elect the mayor of Istanbul only, unlike the election in March when voters across the country chose mayors, municipal assemblies, and neighbourhood administrators.

Around 10.56 million people are eligible to vote Sunday.

The city

Erdogan has famously said: “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey” and “Whoever loses Istanbul, loses Turkey.” Erdogan’s rise to power began as Istanbul mayor in 1994.

The city of more than 15 million residents is Turkey’s largest, straddling both Europe and Asia. It draws millions of tourists each year and is the country’s commercial and cultural hub.

The sprawling city accounted for 31 per cent of Turkey’s GDP in 2017. The Istanbul metropolitan municipality and its subsidiaries had a total budget of $8.8 billion last year.

The municipality, which has been run by the conservative ruling party and its Islamic-oriented predecessor for 25 years, has awarded lucrative contracts to businesses considered to be close to the government and offers huge financial resources and employment opportunities.

The candidates

Twenty-one people are officially running for mayor but the race is essentially between two men: Ekrem Imamoglu and Binali Yildirim.

Imamoglu, from the secular Republican People’s Party, CHP, won the annulled vote by a narrow margin of just 13,729 votes in a surprise victory over the ruling party. The 49-year-old is a former contractor and ex-mayor of the district of Beylikduzu in Istanbul. He served as Istanbul’s mayor for just 18 days before his victory was annulled. He is also backed by the nationalist Good Party.

Binali Yildirim, 63, is the candidate for the governing Justice and Development Party, AKP. A former prime minister and transport minister, he resigned as parliament speaker to run in the March 31 local government elections. He’s also backed by the AKP ally, the Nationalist Movement Party.

As in the March poll across Turkey, the Kurdish vote is key. A pro-Kurdish party, second largest opposition group in parliament, is again sitting the race out in a strategy seen as favouring Imamoglu.

The controversy

The March vote was rife with controversy that started on election night. Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency suspended its results service as the opposition candidate began to narrow the gap, drawing widespread criticism that it was partial toward the government. Both Imamoglu and Yildirim declared victory on the night.

Erdogan’s governing party filed a series of objections to the results citing alleged voting irregularities. Imamoglu received a mandate to serve as mayor on April 17 when the ensuing recounts failed to alter the results. He was stripped of it on May 6.

Voting 7-4, the election board annulled the Istanbul mayoral election on the grounds that some polling stations were not headed by civil servants. Before the elections however, parties had time to appeal alleged violations but had not objected to staffing at those polling stations.