By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Istanbul's mayoral candidates argued over the election they contested in March in a rare televised debate on Sunday, a week before a re-run vote seen as a test of Turkish democracy and the reach of President Tayyip Erdogan's AK party.
In the first televised debate of its kind in the country in nearly two decades, AKP candidate Binali Yildirim faced the main opposition's Ekrem Imamoglu, who won the initial vote in March but was ousted from city hall when the result was annulled in May.
Yildirim, a former prime minister, narrowly lost the contest in what was one of the biggest election setbacks for Erdogan since the AKP first came to power in 2002. His party also lost control of the capital Ankara.
But in a decision last month that raised new questions over Turkey's institutional independence, the High Election Board scheduled the re-run on June 23 after a series of AKP complaints that the initial vote was marred by irregularities.
"Strange thing happened when your votes were counted," Yildirim said, describing the March contest. "Votes were stolen."
"Who stole votes for God's sake?" responded Imamoglu, of the Republican People's Party (CHP), saying the election board had made no such allegation in its decision to annul the vote.
"We are conducting a struggle for democracy," he said during heated exchanges.
The event was screened by all major channels.
The country's last prominent televised debate between political leaders was in October 2002, when Erdogan faced then-CHP chairman Deniz Baykal a week before the parliamentary election that marked the AKP's breakthrough.
The party's campaign for this month's contest is vastly different from the lead-up to the March 31 vote when Erdogan delivered tough nationalist messages at mass rallies each day. In the last two weeks the president has been uncharacteristically absent from the media.
In a speech on Sunday, he questioned why foreign media were so interested in "just a mayor being elected", stressing that the city council was dominated by his AK Party.
Opinion polls have consistently shown Imamoglu leading, in some cases by several percentage points.
The rebooted AKP campaign has focused on Yildirim and a more conciliatory tone, as it seeks to win over voters who have deserted the party and its nationalist MHP party allies.
(Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and John Stonestreet)