ISTANBUL — The defining character of Istanbul’s rerun mayoral election depends on whom you ask.

For some, it’s a pivotal contest for nationwide power and influence. Or it’s a test of Turkey’s democracy. Or a watershed moment for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has all but staked his political brand on the outcome.

Sunday’s vote, in reality, merges all of the above.

The previous balloting, held in March, was annulled by Turkey’s high election board after Erdogan’s ruling party challenged results that showed an opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, had narrowly beat Binali Yildirim, who is backed by Erdogan’s party.

This time, no one is leaving the outcome to chance.

As the candidates have traversed the city trying to sway swing voters, election monitoring groups, lawyer’s associations and the political parties have mobilized thousands of volunteers and lawyers. They plan to observe every moment of the balloting at Istanbul’s more than 30,000 polling places. 

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The chances of direct vote tampering, such as ballot-stuffing, were considered slim. Rather, the mobilization of observers was more like a show of civic strength — or popular defiance — against Erdogan’s ruling party and its zeal for victory.

Mehmet Durakoglu, the president of the Istanbul Bar Association, said similar associations around the country had recruited up to 7,000 lawyers to respond to reports of voting irregularities in March.

“We see the election on Sunday as an effort to regain a lost democracy,” he said.

Turkey’s voting processes are well-established and considered secure, with rigorous oversight by election officials, political parties as well as ordinary citizens, said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

They were not like the polls in other autocratic states, like Russia or Egypt, “where elections are not real,” she said.  

 “As a population, Turks think elections matter,” she said. And political parties “still campaign, vigorously and sometimes viciously.”  

Instead, the danger in this election, and in other recent contests, stemmed from political pressure before and after the voting, she and other analysts said.

Erdogan, who soared to prominence as Istanbul’s mayor 25 years ago and remains Turkey’s most popular political figure, has gained a considerable — some say insurmountable — advantage during elections in recent years by tightening his authoritarian grip. 

 Two years ago, Turkish voters narrowly approved constitutional changes that radically altered Turkey’s system of government, from a parliamentary to a presidential system, greatly increasing Erdogan’s clout over state institutions, including the judiciary.

The changes coincided with a state crackdown on enemies that included the news media and journalists — delivering the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, overwhelmingly friendly press coverage.  

As a result, Imamoglu, the opposition candidate in the mayoral race, has relied on shoe-leather and social media to deliver his campaign pledges to voters.  

The race carries high stakes.

Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city and its commercial center, generating roughly a third of the nation’s gross domestic product. It is personally important to Erdogan, who was born and raised in the city and has relied on Istanbul as a source of patronage for his party.  

The apparent loss of the city after the first vote emboldened critics within his own ruling party and led to rumors of a breakaway faction.

Recent polls have showed Yildirim trailing in the revote as well. Erdogan and the AKP, in response, have stepped up their attacks on Imamoglu and made a push to peel away Kurdish voters from the opposition.  

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Turkey’s struggling economy has been a central issue. Imamoglu has promised to curb waste in the city’s budget, stamp out the patronage networks and provide financial assistance to low income families.

Yildirim pledges to create tens of thousands of jobs with the kind of high-profile development projects that the AKP has championed during its decades in power.

The national election board based its decision to annul the March contest on narrow technical grounds, including the fact that the local election boards at hundreds of balloting boxes were not civil servants and that more than 700 voters were ineligible.

Durakoglu, the Istanbul bar association president, said the decision “had no basis in law.” In a meeting with foreign journalists last week, Erdogan said his party would accept the outcome of the revote.

Against that backdrop, Vote and Beyond, a civil society organization aimed at ensuring the credibility of Turkey’s elections, has stepped up its efforts to monitor the polls. During the voting in March, when local elections were held across the nation, they had recruited 6,000 volunteers. For Sunday’s revote, in Istanbul alone, the number had grown to 10,000, according to Mustafa Koksalan, the president of the association.  

At one of the daily training sessions held last week, the volunteers received instruction on voting processes and how to conduct themselves at the polling stations. Don’t wear political party symbols, or even the colors of soccer teams, they were told. Be unbiased and independent.  

“We will not be fighters, we will be monitors,” an instructor said.

Opinion: How I won the mayoral race in Istanbul — and will do it again

Opinion: Why Erdogan is terrified of the opposition candidate for mayor

Analysis: Istanbul’s Imamoglu is a victim. Here’s why he doesn’t talk about it.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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