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Turkey's resurgent opposition thumps Erdogan in pivotal local elections

It was the worst defeat for the president and his AK Party in their more than two decades in power, and it could signal a change in the country’s divided political landscape.
Turkey’s resurgent opposition thumps Erdogan in pivotal local elections
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before casting his ballot in Istanbul on Sunday.Murat Kula / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed on Monday to correct any mistakes that led to his party’s defeat in local elections where the opposition capitalized on economic woes and alienated Islamist voters, casting uncertainty over his reform plans.

Sunday’s vote marked Erdoğan and his AK Party’s (AKP) worst defeat in more than 20 years in power, revitalizing the opposition party and strengthening Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu’s standing as the president’s main rival.

Redrawing a political map long dominated by the AKP, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) won the popular vote for the first time in decades and swept most of the main cities, penetrating far into conservative central Turkey.

Analysts said voters lost patience with both a cost-of-living crisis driven by near 70% inflation and Erdoğan’s divisive political style.

The result bruised his hopes of adopting a new constitution, which could potentially extend his rule beyond 2028 when his term ends, they said. Though AKP and its allies have a majority in parliament, Erdoğan would need broader support or a successful referendum for a new constitution.

Turkey's main opposition party retained its control over key cities and made huge gains elsewhere in Sunday's local elections, preliminary results showed, in a major upset to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had set his sights on retaking control of those urban areas. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Republican People's Party supporters gather to celebrate outside City Hall in Istanbul on Sunday night. Khalil Hamra / AP

Erdoğan delivered a somber and introspective speech in the early hours of Monday. “This is not an end for us, but actually a turning point,” he said, acknowledging a “loss of altitude” for the AKP.

“If we made a mistake, we will fix it,” he told crowds gathered at AKP headquarters in Ankara, without indicating what changes he might make within his party or in policy.

In response, Turkish stocks rose and the lira — which has shed more than 80% of its value in five years — touched another record low versus the dollar on a holiday for many world financial markets.

Erdoğan made an abrupt U-turn in economic policy after his triumph in a national election last year, resulting in aggressive interest rate hikes to rein in inflation expectations that soared under his yearslong unorthodox policy stance.

Erdoğan has asked for patience with slower economic growth and high borrowing costs, promising reprieve later this year, and Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek said on Monday the belt-tightening program would carry on.

But AKP election candidates were thumped in the cities of Istanbul and Ankara and even in deeply pro-Erdoğan strongholds like Bursa, Afyonkarahisar and Adiyaman provinces.

“I think it’s mainly about the economy and in particular the inflation ... story. I think voters decided to punish Erdoğan for these reasons,” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of political risk consultancy Teneo.

He said AKP lost control of industrial regions where lots of workers are on a minimum wage, which has trailed inflation despite big rises.

AKP overall “suffered due to over-confidence hubris,” Piccoli said, pointing to the success of the Islamist New Welfare Party, which emerged as the third biggest party in a big surprise, with 6.2% support.

New Welfare benefited by taking an even more hardline stance than Erdoğan against Israel over the Gaza conflict, which helped draw pious voters away from the Islamist-rooted AKP, analysts said.

The CHP — the party of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — won near 38% support nationwide, more than two points ahead of the AKP and shattering the ceiling of 25% support it has had this century.

Opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper called it a “historic victory” that taught Erdoğan a lesson.

The CHP’s İmamoğlu won 51% support in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, 11 percentage points ahead of his AKP challenger despite polls pointing to a close race.

He won despite the collapse of an opposition alliance after last year’s election defeats, reaching out to Kurds and others typically outside of the secularist CHP base.

“The period of one-person rule has ended as of today,” İmamoğlu, 53, told thousands of jubilant supporters on Sunday evening.

The former businessman, who entered politics in 2008, had defeated Erdoğan’s candidate in the local election five years ago, ending 25 years of rule in the city by AKP and its Islamist predecessors. He is now touted as a presidential challenger.

“We didn’t vote for (AKP) obviously due to the economic conditions and promises that were not kept,” said accountant Onur Hizmetci, 42, adding he had voted AKP the last 15 years.

“All parties need to move away from polarization and do something for our country with unity,” he said in a public square on the Asian side of Istanbul. “People are sick of fighting and arguing.”