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Turkey Local Polls: Opposition Surges Ahead, Setback For Erdogan

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Istanbul: Turkish President Erdogan and his party suffered the biggest electoral blow on Sunday in a nationwide local vote that reasserted the opposition as a political force and reinforced Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu as the President’s chief rival.

After most of the counting was completed, Imamoglu had a 10-point lead over his rival in the mayoral contest for Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey. Meanwhile, his Republican People’s Party (CHP) had kept Ankara and picked up 15 additional mayoral seats across the country. It was the biggest setback for Erdogan and the AK Party (AKP) in their more than 20 years in office, and it may herald a shift in the divisive political climate of the nation. Erdogan described it as a “turning point” in a speech just after midnight.

Due to rising prices, disgruntled Islamist voters, and Imamoglu’s popularity outside of the CHP’s secular heartland in Istanbul, he and the AKP performed worse than pollsters had projected, according to observers. “Those who do not comprehend the message of the nation will ultimately lose,” the 53-year-old Imamoglu declared late on Sunday to thousands of ecstatic followers, some of whom were yelling for Erdogan to step down.

Tonight, 16 million Istanbul residents sent a message to the president and our competitors,” stated Imamoglu, a former businessman who entered politics in 2008 and is now regarded as a possible presidential contender. Erdogan, who served as mayor of his native Istanbul in the 1990s, had run a vigorous campaign ahead of the municipal elections, which observers saw as a test of the opposition’s resilience and his level of popularity.

Speaking to assemblies assembled at the AKP headquarters in the nation’s capital, Ankara, Erdogan declared that his coalition had “lost altitude” around the country and that action would be taken to address the message sent by voters. Another setback for Erdogan came when hundreds more supporters in Ankara waved party and Turkish flags during a speech by the reelected CHP mayor, Mansur Yavas, who easily defeated his AKP opponent.

The largest city in Europe and the centre of the nation’s economy, Istanbul, had 92.92% of its voting boxes opened, indicating that 50.92% of voters supported Imamoglu, while 40.05% supported AKP rival Murat Kurum, a former minister in Erdogan’s national administration. Surveys had indicated that the race in Istanbul would be close and that the CHP might lose ground nationwide.

However, preliminary official results released by the state-run Anadolu Agency revealed that the AKP and its principal ally had forfeited mayoralty in 19 significant municipalities, including the industrialized northwest’s major cities Bursa and Balikesir, potentially indicating financial difficulties for wage earners. The results showed that the CHP was leading the country by nearly 1% of the vote, a first in thirty-five years.

As an assistant professor of political science at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Mert Arslanalp declared that this was Erdogan’s “severest election defeat” since he took office in 2002. He continued by saying that Imamoglu is the most politically formidable opponent of Erdogan’s regime because he has shown he can bridge the profound sociopolitical divides that characterize Turkey’s opposition voters even in the absence of institutional support from them.

When Imamoglu initially won Istanbul in 2019, he delivered Erdogan a severe electoral setback and put a stop to the 25 years that the AKP and its Islamist predecessors had ruled the city, including Erdogan’s tenure as mayor in the 1990s. That year, CHP also won Ankara.

Despite a protracted cost-of-living crisis, the president retaliated in 2023 by winning reelection and a parliamentary majority with his nationalist supporters.

Analysts argued that this time around, voters were compelled to punish the AKP due to economic hardships including roughly 70% inflation and a slowdown in the economy caused by an aggressive monetary tightening policy.

“The key factor was the economy,” senior consultant at the Albright Stonebridge Group Hakan Akbas stated. “Turkish people demanded change and Imamoglu is now the default nemesis to President Erdogan.”

Erdogan asserted that after the second election cycle concludes in less than a year, the economy will bounce back naturally. Flag-waving supporters of Imamoglu demonstrated their intention to see him challenge Erdogan in a future presidential election in front of the Istanbul Municipality headquarters. Growing public support for the Islamist New Welfare Party, which took an even more extreme stance against Israel during the Gaza crisis than did Erdogan, significantly weakened the AKP’s standing in the eyes of the public. The party won Sanliurfa in the southeast by unseating an AKP incumbent.

Imamoglu was re-elected despite the breakup of the opposition alliance that had failed to overthrow Erdogan the year before. This time, a candidate in Istanbul running under the Democratic Encounter banner was nominated by the main pro-Kurdish party, which had backed Imamoglu in 2019. However, the results show that many Kurds voted for him again despite their disloyalty to the party.

DEM proved its mettle in the predominantly Kurdish southeast by taking control of ten provinces. Due to suspected militant connections, the state has replaced pro-Kurdish mayors in past elections with “trustees” appointed by the state.

Earlier in the day, violence broke out, with one person killed and eleven injured in an incident involving fights between gangs using weapons, sticks, and stones in the southeast. In another, four people were hurt in a scuffle, and one neighbourhood office, or “muhtar,” candidate was slain, according to Anadolu.

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