ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP faced a major upset on Monday after local election results showed the ruling party had lost the capital Ankara and the country’s economic hub Istanbul after a decade and a half in power.
Losing the country’s two major cities would be a stunning defeat for Erdogan, a former Istanbul mayor himself, whose ability to win repeatedly at the ballot box has been unparalleled in Turkish history.
Erdogan campaigned hard, portraying Sunday’s vote for mayors and district councils as a fight for the nation’s survival, but the election became a test of AKP rule after Turkey slipped into a recession for the first time in a decade.
The opposition candidate for Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu was leading by nearly 28,000 votes with most ballot boxes counted, Supreme Election Board (YSK) chairman Sadi Guven said.
Imamoglu won almost 4.16 million votes while the Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate, former premier Binali Yildirim, garnered 4.13 million.
Both had claimed victory in the early hours following a tightly contested race for the country’s largest city, with preliminary results showing them in a dead heat.
Procedures to challenge the vote were continuing, Guven said, with 84 ballot boxes left to be counted.
‘Dirty politics has lost’
In Ankara, the opposition candidate for mayor, Mansur Yavas, was ahead with 50.89% of votes ahead of the AKP’s Mehmet Ozhaseki on 47.06%, Anadolu state agency reported, with 99% of ballot boxes counted.
“Ankara has won. The loser in Ankara is Ozhaseki, dirty politics has lost. Democracy has won,” Yavas told supporters who were waving red Turkish flags and setting off fireworks at a celebratory rally.
AKP officials had said they would object to what they claimed were tens of thousands of invalidated votes in both of the major cities.
Speaking to supporters in Ankara, Erdogan said the election was a victory for the AKP, which along with its coalition partner, the rightwing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), won more than 50% of votes nationwide.
But the Turkish leader appeared to accept some municipal posts were lost, without referring directly to the results in Ankara or Istanbul.
“If there are any shortcomings, it is our duty to correct them,” Erdogan said. “Starting tomorrow morning, we will begin our work to identify our shortcomings and make up for them.”
‘Istanbul is his heart’
The loss in Istanbul, analysts said, would be especially sensitive for Erdogan, who grew up in city’s working-class Kasimpasa neighbourhood, and liked to tell AKP rank-and-file that victory in the city was like winning Turkey.
He fielded one of his loyalists and former prime minister Yildirim as the candidate, and he often campaigned more than once a day around Istanbul’s districts.
“Istanbul is his heart, it’s really important for him, it is the first place they (AKP) started winning,” said Ayse Ayata, professor of political science at Middle East Technical University in Ankara.
“There are two kinds of results of the elections. They have retained their 51% majority in total, which is very important. Had they not, this would lead into a questioning of their legitimacy.”
For his supporters, Erdogan remains the strong leader they believe Turkey needs and they tout the country’s economic development over the years he and the AKP have been in power.
Rallying his base among pious more conservative Turks, Erdogan had presented his opponents as enemies of the state, tarnishing them as tied to Kurdish militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who have fought a decades-long insurgency.
Rights activists and Turkey’s Western allies say that under Erdogan’s leadership, democracy has been eroded, particularly after a failed 2016 coup that led to tens of thousands of people being arrested.
The AKP built its ballot box success on Erdogan’s perceived economic prowess, but days before the vote, the Turkish lira was sliding again, provoking memories of the 2018 currency crisis that badly hurt Turkish households.
How he manages the economy will be key for the party’s success in the next few years before the next president and general election in 2023.
The Turkish leader told supporters on Monday that economic reforms and security will be the focus following the local elections. His finance minister has already said economic reforms will be announced next week.
“Erdogan needs to understand the reasons of this losses and most probably he will emphasise on guaranteeing a certain level of economic growth until the next general elections,” said Emre Erdogan, a professor at Istanbul Bilgi University and no relation to the president.
“Most probably the residents of both metropolitan cities suffered from the economic decline and it has been reflected on the polls.”