ISTANBUL — In a rare democratic experience for Turkish citizens, the two main candidates for mayor of Istanbul, gearing up for a repeat election on June 23, went head to head Sunday evening in the first live television debate the country has seen in 17 years.
The debate pitted Binali Yildirim, the government-backed candidate and former prime minister, against Ekrem Imamoglu, a district mayor who, supported by an alliance of opposition parties, has been leading in the polls.
Mr. Imamoglu won the popular vote in Istanbul in March by a narrow margin — 13,000 votes — a result that the governing party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan contested until the country’s High Election Council ordered a do-over in a much-criticized decision.
The head-to-head on Sunday was momentous for Turkish citizens, who have been fed exhaustive pro-government programming across mainstream news media in recent years under Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The president last took part in a televised debate when campaigning for prime minister in 2002.
A feverish election campaign has been waged in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, since Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., refused to accept the result of the March 31 mayor’s race.
The loss of Istanbul, which has been in his party’s hands since Mr. Erdogan served as mayor in the 1990s, caught the party by surprise, one of its lawmakers from the city acknowledged. Istanbul is Mr. Erdogan’s home base and a huge source of wealth and prestige for the A.K.P.
The legislator, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with party guidelines, said Istanbul had been presumed to be in the bag. But the last election proved that assumption flawed, at best.
Ihsan Aktas of the Genar polling firm, which had correctly predicted a close race in Istanbul, said the A.K.P. “forgot how to win by winning so often.” The opposition, he said, was far more motivated and united because of its opposition to Mr. Erdogan.
Opinion polls show the opposition candidate, Mr. Imamoglu, 49, just ahead of Mr. Yildirim, 63. Mr. Imamoglu, mayor of an outlying district of Istanbul for the past five years, won support with an all-embracing grass-roots campaign that played well with residents of the city.
Many have grown weary of more than 20 years of the A.K.P.’s running the city and are feeling the bite of an economic downturn as the currency, the lira, has shed much of its value over the past year.
Some analysts have predicted that a sympathy vote for Mr. Imamoglu — who was declared winner and took up office the first time around, only to have his mandate subsequently withdrawn — could increase his chances in the rerun.
But there is every sign that the A.K.P. is working to improve its performance and make sure it gets the vote out this time.
Mr. Yildirim has been in the forefront of the campaign — and he will take the fall if he loses, Mehmet Acet, a pro-government columnist, wrote this week.
“It would be Binali Yildirim if he wins the election, and it would be him again if he loses it,” Mr. Acet wrote in the daily Yeni Safak, quoting a senior A.K.P. official.
That fact may also help distance Mr. Erdogan from a potential loss and insulate him from any fallout. The president has drawn back from the campaign, and more often appears in the news handling matters of state, with repeated live broadcasts of his speeches reduced, commentators noted.
It is Mr. Yildirim who is mingling more with people on the streets and squares.
He has borrowed from Mr. Imamoglu’s campaign, abandoning staged speeches and even matching his rival’s campaign promises with offers of his own, such as free internet access for young people and support for engaged couples.
Whether that strategy will be enough to win this time is far from clear.
Mr. Yildirim acknowledged after the March vote that the opposition had succeeded by forming an alliance, with its three main parties putting aside their considerable differences and voting tactically for a single candidate.
But the biggest shock for members of Mr. Erdogan’s party was the resistance from their own supporters. An analysis of the voters who abstained in the last round may spell similar trouble this time.
In one Istanbul district, Umraniye, 77,000 A.K.P. members did not vote, the A.K.P. lawmaker said. Considering that the margin between the candidates was only 13,000 votes, a better turnout would have changed the result, the lawmaker noted.
All told, according to Mr. Aktas of the Genar polling firm, “300,000 voters did not come out to vote for A.K.P. this time in the local elections,” meaning those in March.
Most of those were ethnic Kurdish voters who had traditionally supported Mr. Erdogan. Many have been alienated by his alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party and the increasing anti-Kurdish tone of the political arena, Mr. Aktas said.
“Kurdish supporters became uncomfortable,” Mr. Aktas added. “The nationalist talk caused a loss in Istanbul.”
The A.K.P. has also brought influential tribal and religious leaders to Istanbul in an effort to persuade Kurdish voters, said Mehmet Ali Kulat, who runs a political consulting firm and who has polled Kurdish voters.
Mr. Yildirim spent the religious holiday of Eid al-Fitr visiting regions in southeastern Turkey to woo the Kurdish vote, even tentatively reading a message in Kurdish.
He went as far as to mention the word Kurdistan — usually a taboo in Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey — drawing a sharp rebuke from nationalists.