The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stunning setbacks in Turkey’s elections dent Erdogan’s aura of invincibility

Candidate of main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), for Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu (C) greets supporters before a press conference Istanbul, Turkey, April 1, 2019. (Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced the prospect Monday of a stinging electoral defeat in Istanbul, the city whose politics he dominated for a quarter of a century, with vote results showing what appeared to be an opposition victory in the race for the city’s mayor. Members of Erdogan’s ruling party vowed to challenge the outcome.

Victories by candidates from Turkey’s main opposition party in several of the country’s largest cities, including Ankara, the capital, were a significant symbolic defeat for Erdogan — denting his aura of invincibility and providing a surge of confidence to an opposition party that Erdogan for decades has easily outflanked.  

The local elections Sunday across Turkey were widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s policies and produced mixed results. His ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, led all other parties in the elections and, along with a coalition partner, captured a majority of the vote.   

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan suffered a setback as his party lost control of Ankara in local elections, while the race in Istanbul was too close to call. (Video: Reuters)

But the loss of Istanbul, if confirmed, would be an especially harsh blow to the president. Erdogan rose to national prominence as the city’s mayor from 1994 to 1998. The city has served since then as a source of wealth and prestige for his party and a showcase — with its sprinting construction, megaprojects and multiplying mosques — for his broader ideological vision.  

“That kingdom belonged not to the AKP, but to Erdogan,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “Psychologically, it is a big loss.”  

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Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate for mayor in Istanbul from the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, was leading the race by more than 28,000 votes on Monday, according to Sadi Guven, the head of Turkey’s high election board. Imamoglu’s opponent, Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister under Erdogan, also acknowledged that he was trailing in the contest.  

But Yildirim did not concede defeat, telling reporters that votes were still being counted and that more than 300,000 ballots had been declared invalid. Other AKP officials said that they would challenge the results and that their own tallies showed the party had won the race. 

Erdogan, who had suggested on Sunday night that his party may have lost Istanbul, did not speak publicly about the Istanbul race on Monday.  

He had campaigned furiously in recent weeks for his party’s candidates, portraying their success as a matter of national survival as he dashed to rallies around the country. But analysts predicted he would face a reckoning from voters primarily because of an economic downturn that brought double-digit inflation and unemployment.  

Amid various financial and political crises, the Turkish currency, the lira, has lost a third of its value against the dollar over the past year.  

Some voters said pocketbook issues were front and center as they headed to the polls. Analysts said that other people, especially in urban centers, may have voted to reject Erdogan’s rapid accumulation of power in recent years and to protest the stifling political atmosphere that took hold during a government crackdown on opponents after a failed coup attempt in 2016.   

“In metropolitan cities, there were aspirations for more openness,” Ozel said. “The allure of the president seems to have diminished.” 

The election results, if they hold, could have consequences for Erdogan that are more than just symbolic. The president’s party and its Islamist predecessor had controlled the cities of Ankara and Istanbul since 1994. “The twin victories” had provided a network of support and patronage over the years that empowered Erdogan and his allies as the AKP was transformed into a political juggernaut that won election after election, Ozel said. “The twin loss will have an adverse effect,” he said.

In an essay published Monday, Gonul Tol, director of the Turkish studies program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, wrote that the loss of Ankara and Istanbul — along with Adana, Antalya and Izmir, other major cities captured by the opposition on Sunday — dealt a “huge blow to the clientilistic network Erdogan has built over the last 25 years.” 

“Through this network, he has ensured the loyalty of the business elite and put their resources to work to consolidate his power,” she wrote. “At a time of economic downturn, co-opting those elites might become increasingly difficult.”  

Predictions that the election results marked the “beginning of the end” of AKP dominance appeared overblown, Ozel said. But the elections did have the potential to further alter Turkey’s political landscape, for instance by causing Erdogan to move further to the right as he becomes more reliant on his coalition partner, a nationalist party. 

There was also the possibility — however distant — that disaffected members of the AKP would see the results as an opportunity to strike out on their own, analysts said.  

There were lessons for the opposition as well. In the past, “Erdogan was blessed with an opposition of disparate groups that hated each other,” said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The election results, he said, had shown what could happen when “they came together in a meaningful union for the first time.”  

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