Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday fired back at Western criticism of a political ban imposed on İstanbul’s popular opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu ahead of next year’s general election, Agence France-Presse reported.
A court last week sentenced İmamoğlu to more than two years in prison and barred him from holding office for the same length of time for “insulting a public official” in 2019.
The case stemmed from a hugely controversial election in which İmamoğlu’s initial victory was annulled.
İmamoğlu has emerged as one of the more likely opposition leaders to beat Erdoğan in a presidential election due by next June.
The 52-year-old will continue to serve as mayor while his appeal winds its way through the courts.
But a top election official said İmamoğlu would not be allowed to serve as president should he win the election and the ruling is upheld.
The official said a re-run presidential vote would then be called.
The United States led an international chorus of condemnation of the trial.
The State Department said it was “deeply troubled and disappointed” while Germany called the political ban “a heavy blow to democracy.”
Erdoğan told his ruling party faithful and cheering supporters that foreign powers were trying to use the case to manipulate Turkish politics ahead of the vote.
“Are you looking for political engineers?” Erdoğan asked his supporters.
“Are you looking for foreigners who use an individual crime to manipulate politics in our country?”
The mayor’s conviction brought tens of thousands of supporters out on the streets of Istanbul.
Some analysts believe it could energize the stuttering campaigns of Turkey’s opposition parties — still arguing among themselves about who to field against Erdoğan next year.
The Turkish leader uncharacteristically refrained from commenting about the conviction for three days.
He then distanced himself from the verdict and pointed out that it could still be appealed.
Erdoğan’s latest comments suggest that he intends to play up his nationalist credentials by aligning the opposition with foreign forces during the election campaign.