Coronavirus stokes tensions between Erdogan and Istanbul’s mayor

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a videoconference with G20 leaders to discuss the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Huber Mansion in Istanbul, Turkey, March 26, 2020. Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic has rekindled rivalry in Turkey between President Tayyip Erdogan and Istanbul’s opposition mayor, with disputes over fundraising and a potential lockdown possibly endangering a coordinated effort to combat the outbreak.

The central government in Ankara has said a money-raising campaign launched by the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, is illegal and it has threatened to prosecute those involved.

Imamoglu, seen as a possible future candidate for the presidency, launched the campaign this week with the slogan “We will succeed together”, seeking cash and other donations from wealthier Turks for hundreds of thousands of those in need.

Erdogan then launched a rival “National Solidarity” campaign and promised seven months of his salary to the cause. Various state institutions, firms and politicians made contributions and the president condemned the municipal campaigns on Wednesday.

“There is no sense in having a state within a state,” he told AKP officials in a televised video conference, saying nobody had the right to raise funds aside from the presidency.

Turkey’s Interior Ministry said Imamoglu’s campaign contravened a law requiring that permission be sought from authorities before collecting money for the needy and said it would act against those responsible.

The rivalry is about much more than money-raising, though.

Imamoglu wants a lockdown in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city with 16 million people, to slow the spread of coronavirus, while Erdogan – who has adopted some other containment measures – is resisting such a move to cushion the economic pain.

Turkey’s death toll from the outbreak increased by 63 to 277 on Wednesday, in its sharpest increase yet, while the number of cases from the disease rose by 2,148 to 15,679, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said.

Ankara has halted all international flights, limited domestic travel, closed schools, bars and cafes and suspended mass prayers and sports fixtures to counter the outbreak. But people are still going to work as Erdogan seeks to sustain economic production and exports.

ISTANBUL AT RISK

Imamoglu said he has not discussed the pandemic with Erdogan since the first case was reported in Turkey on March 11, though he said “we would like to” share information.

“Istanbul is clearly now the fundamental centre of this disease,” Imamoglu told FOX TV. “If just 15% of people go out in Istanbul, that is 2.5 million people – as much as the (entire population of some) cities in Europe which are lamenting their situation.”

Later on Wednesday, Koca said 60% of cases in Turkey were in Istanbul, with 8,852 cases and 117 deaths. Imamoglu repeated his call for a stay-at-home order in Istanbul shortly after.

Imamoglu, from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), dealt Erdogan the worst electoral setback of his career when he beat a candidate from the ruling AK Party in a mayoral vote a year ago, and later logged an even bigger victory in a re-run.

Imamoglu has since repeatedly locked horns with the central government on issues such as funding and an Istanbul canal project. Now Istanbul, with nearly a fifth of Turkey’s population, is central to the fight against the pandemic.

In response to the fundraising campaign, state banks blocked donation accounts run by both Istanbul and the municipality of Ankara, where a CHP mayor was also elected last year, and which also launched a local fundraising campaign.

The Istanbul municipality said on Wednesday it had launched a court case seeking to lift the block on its accounts and revive the fundraising campaign.

Eleven mayors from CHP-run cities issued a joint statement calling for the Interior Ministry to reverse its move, saying it was a time to put politics aside and avoid polarisation.

Later on Wednesday, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said he had discussed the issue with Imamoglu in a phone call on Tuesday and urged him to cooperate, not work against each other.

“We must not be in a blind fight, that is wrong” Soylu said, adding that an unapproved fundraising campaign was illegal.

Separately, Istanbul has filed a legal complaint about what it said were orchestrated social media posts accusing the city council of allowing overcrowding on public transport. Soylu said an investigation into the issue showed no ill intention from the municipality.

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