Mayoral candidates for the upcoming race in Istanbul have according to analysts failed to win over swing voters during the rare and highly-anticipated live debate.
Critics say the debate proved to be lacking in breakthrough moments, with its format also coming under scrutiny.
The televised debate between Istanbul’s ousted mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s Binali Yildirim on Sunday was the first one of its kind that Turkey has seen in 17 years.
Sunday’s event became a rare democratic experience for Turkish citizens, who have not seen such a debate at any political level since 2002 when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP came to power.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s Imamoglu and Turkey’s former prime minister Yildirim, two mayoral candidates of Istanbul, sat at a circular white table opposite the moderator and began courteously by exchanging gifts for Father’s Day.
However, the two candidates who gear up for a repeat election on June 23, soon began to argue over the polls in which they had previously faced off in March, accusing one another of wrongdoing in the first round of the election.
The government-backed Yildirim repeated his party’s allegations that the March’s mayoral vote, where Imamoglu scored a narrow victory of some 13,000 votes over him, had been stolen.
CHP’s Imamoglu accused his rival of slander and argued that the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK), which canceled the results following appeals by the governing AKP, made no mention of any stolen votes in its reasoned decision.
He also blamed Yildirim for announcing his own victory late on March 31, when the initial results of the mayoral polls were showing the opposite.
The moderator Ismail Kucukkaya, a journalist from the critical Fox TV, then asked each of the candidates to ask a question to their rival.
A question of normal
Imamoglu wanted to know whether Yildirim thought it was normal for the state-run Anadolu Agency (AA) to stop sharing election results for 13 hours without an explanation for the interruption of the data flow on the night of March 31.
The AA, which is the major source of election data in Turkey, suddenly stopped updating the poll results with almost two percent of the votes left to be announced.
The state-run AA’s move sparked suspicion of manipulation among opposition members and voters.
Yildirim held forth that while it was not right for AA to stop sharing poll data, he was not the one to be held responsible for the issue.
He then asked his rival the reason why he ordered a copy to be made of the Istanbul municipality databases immediately after resuming the office, a move that was halted by a Turkish court.
Imamoglu stated that the CHP had been receiving complaints and reports about the municipal archives and thus planned merely to back-up the files in a move that was misinterpreted by others.
“In order to back up the data, you need to copy it first,” he explained.
Moderator Kucukkaya asked both candidates whether they would declare their assets and those of their family if they became mayor, a pointed question for Yildirim due to previous corruption allegations involving his family, to which both candidates said they would.
Gülen meeting denied
They were also asked about the Gulen movement, which is designated by the Turkish government as a terrorist organization and is accused of orchestrating the July 15, 2016, coup attempt.
When Yildirim denied ever meeting with Fethullah Gulen, US-based leader of the faith-based movement, it set off expressions of disbelief on social media.
During the debate, Yildirim showed impatience with his rival’s answers in several instances and earned a reprimand from Kucukkaya for interrupting Imamoglu.
Despite all that, the two candidates ended the live debate with jokes and smiles.
Upon Imamoglu’s request, the candidates also had their photo taken together with their family members and Kucukkaya in a show of unity, following the TV program.
Critics argued that the format of the debate, which indicated that the candidates should answer a question within three minutes and that they cannot interrupt one another, was not exciting enough for the audience.
A number of intellectuals commented that the debate was not heated enough to change the minds of the voters or help undecided voters to make a choice on who to vote.
Journalist Asli Aydintasbas, who is also a senior fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, stated that the debate would not change anyone’s vote.
Veteran journalist Cuneyt Ozdemir said in an ironical tweet: “It was a stroke of genius not to let them [the candidates] engage in a dialogue… Now that you don’t let them speak with each other, you also could have invited them in separate programs.
Unfortunately, the topics cannot be debated in detail, nor can they progress. Both leaders are paying the price [for the debate’s format].”
Ozdemir also emphasized that it was “odd” that the candidates were not allowed to talk to one another, adding that “nothing they have said so far could change the attitude of the swing voters.”
Avrasya research director Kemal Ozkiraz stressed that the program was “extremely inadequate.”
“Not one question that would sweat the candidates was asked. This debate surely won’t change the results of the election,” he underlined.