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Ekrem Imamoglu and Binali Yildirim candidates spar in Istanbul mayoral race debate

Istanbul’s top two mayoral candidates on Sunday sat down for a televised debate a week ahead of a re-run of polls in the Turkish megalopolis, home to some 16 million people. The debate between People's Alliance candidate Binali Yildirim and Nation Alliance candidate Ekrem Imamoglu at Istanbul’s Lutfi Kirdar Congress Center started under the moderation of veteran journalist and TV presenter Ismail Kucukkaya. On why the Istanbul race went to a re-vote, Yildirim stressed that the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party’s choice was to count all the invalid votes, not hold a new election, but the opposition party failed to cooperate.

"If my vote was tallied for the CHP [opposition Republican People’s Party] or another candidate, this was theft. There’s no explanation for this," he added.

He added that if the CHP had not resisted the vote recount, the election would not have to be repeated and the public would not be confused.

For his part, Imamoglu rejected the charge of theft, asking who had stolen the March 31 election, in which he was briefly named mayor before Turkey’s election authority overturned the results over irregularities and illegalities.

"Are your [Yildirim’s] words for AK Party polling officials, for the Good (IYI) Party, for the MHP’s [Nationalist Movement Party] or the CHP’s?” he asked, referring to major parties that competed on March 31. “Or for the heads of balloting committees?" he added.

Imamoglu characterized the Istanbul re-vote as part of the fight for democracy, "not just a local election."

Speaking on Imamoglu’s attempt to copy data from the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality during his brief tenure in office, Yildirim said:

"This copying data work is a FETO [Fetullah Terror Organization] tactic. FETO did it in its history,” referring to the group behind the defeated 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

Yildirim stressed that three experts from outside the municipality were also appointed for the process of copying the data.

"This is a disastrous thing in itself," he added.

In response, Imamoglu said a mayor could do any work or examination regarding his city government.

He also said the process posed no security risk.

Allegations of wasteful spending

Alleging mismanagement and wasteful spending by the Istanbul city government, Imamoglu said that the city’s biggest problems are poverty and unsound spending.

Imamoglu claimed that a court of accounts report found total irregularities reaching 753 million Turkish liras (nearly $127.5 million) over the course of five years in the Istanbul Electric Tram and Tunnel Company (IETT), Istanbul's water authority ISKI, and the metropolitan municipality. 

But Yildirim disputed this, saying: "There is no such a figure in the court of accounts report."

He added that report actually found 108,000 Turkish liras (some $18,300) in irregularities, not the larger figure quoted by Imamoglu, which he said had been repeatedly disproven. 

Touching on the Syrian refugee population in Turkey – some 4 million, more than any country in the world – Imamoglu said Turkey has not handled the issue well, and it has had to do it on its own, without international help.

He also said there are 547,000 registered Syrian refugees in Istanbul, or some 4% of the population.

Imamoglu also said if elected he will assign a desk just for Syrians living in the city and it will work “actively.”

On the same issue, Yildirim told Imamoglu that such a section already exists, but “maybe it could be strengthened.”

Yildirim mentioned how the issue was caused by the eight-year-long civil war in Syria, saying Syrians fled death in their country.

He also said Syrians in Turkey hold the status of temporary protection, and are given the basic services such as education and health.

Yildirim also agreed with Imamoglu that Turkey has not gotten enough international support on the Syrian refugee issue.

He also noted that Ankara has already sent back some 500,000 Syrians to areas cleared of terrorists thanks to Turkey’s anti-terror operations in the region.

More jobs for Istanbulities

The AK Party candidate promised to create some 500,000 more jobs for Istanbulities by attracting more investors through new projects in the next five years.

He also announced to establish a technology base in the city if he is elected as the mayor. The base will facilitate big data processing as well as a center for artificial intelligence.

Yildirim also touched upon his AK Party's success in women workforce participation rate, noting the ratio of women attendance in labor has been a rise from 21% to 34% in last 16 years of his party's rule. 

He also said the number of female students is now more than male students, just like the number of female lecturers at Turkish universities. 

Yildirim said that housewives are needed to be focused also as they bear the responsibility of both children and house.

He said that they will contribute to family budget up to 1,000 Turkish liras ($169) for the handcraft of housewives.

Expressing one of the four families in Turkey under the hunger threshold, Imamoglu said that they are planning to provide up to 2,020 liras (approx. $340) to financially support these families. 

He added that this will be an average of 6,000 to 13,000 Turkish liras (approx. $1000 to $2200) per year which will be shared with the mother of the house. 

Imamoglu said that jobs will be created for 200,000 people who register to the Regional Employment Office. 

Speaking on transportation, he said that transportation will be free for the children under 12 years old and mothers who have babies aged 0-4. Imamoglu added that 40% of discount will also be provided under age 25 without the condition of being a student. 

Imamoglu stressed that he plans to fight with poverty by providing some free of charge opportunities for the people who are working as volunteers in municipal services

Istanbul to get more green space 

Both candidates promised to increase green space in the city. Imamoglu vowed to add 30 million square meters green space to Istanbul while Yildirim plans to create 37.5 square meters more green space under a "Green Corridor" project. 

"There will be hiking, cycling, picnic areas around the corridors," Yildirim said, adding that there will also be playgrounds in each neighborhood of the city if he is elected. 

Yildirim said that every year they will add 50 kilometers to Istanbul's railway, increasing the existing 233-km-long rail lines to 518 km in the next five years.  

Mentioning the same issue, Imamoglu stressed on finding solutions with human, with main actors in the sector such as drivers of bus, taxi, shuttle and other mass transport vehicles. 

He also indicated to allow toll-free access to taxis and minibuses to use bridges in the city.

Yildirim and Imamoglu are vying for the Istanbul mayor’s seat again after the Supreme Election Council (YSK) ordered a re-run of the March 31 Istanbul polls.

The results of the vote were canceled after the ruling AK Party and Nationalist Movement Party appealed to the council, citing irregularities and violations of election law.

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