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5 things to know about Turkey’s momentous election

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Turkey’s local elections on Sunday dealt the biggest blow in more than two decades to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Here are five things to know about the poll that turned into a debacle for the country’s veteran leader.

More than a local poll

By throwing all his energy into campaigning for his party’s candidates for mayors, Erdoğan gave the election a national resonance and made it a de facto referendum on him and his party.

This held especially true in İstanbul, the country’s megapolis and economic powerhouse where Erdoğan got his own political start and that he badly wanted to recapture from the opposition.

The voters’ answer was clear — the ruling party not only failed to wrest back control of İstanbul and the capital Ankara from the opposition, but lost ground in the country’s other major cities, including in the conservative Anatolia region, which had been considered an AKP stronghold.

“The biggest election defeat of Erdoğan’s career,” is how Berk Esen, a political scientist at Sabancı University, described the election, in which the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) scored “its best result since 1977.”

Economic woes

The election took place against a somber economic background — 67 percent inflation and a massive loss in value of the lira, which has deeply affected the lives of most Turks.

“When Turkish people vote, the situation in the kitchen or on their plate changes the voting trend,” Ali Faik Demir, a political scientist at Galatasaray University, told AFP.

The biggest voting changes happen “when we cannot afford a living, when we cannot eat.”

İstanbul

“Whoever wins İstanbul, wins Turkey,” Erman Bakırcı, a pollster from Konda Research and Consultancy, recalled Erdoğan once saying.

The city straddling Europe and Asia is Turkey’s economic powerhouse, accounting for 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). With 16 million residents, it has nearly a fifth of the national population.

“It’s not easy to run İstanbul, a city more populous than 20 countries in the European Union,” said Aylin Ünver Noi, a professor at İstanbul’s Haliç University. “It’s a hub, a commercial, financial and cultural center. It’s a country,” she said, adding that “those who manage to run this city and prove themselves there” open the way to a national platform.

Erdoğan has personified this — he grew up in İstanbul and became mayor in 1994, launching a career that propelled him to the country’s top posts.

Erdoğan’s twilight?

Erdoğan has been in power in Turkey since 2003, when he assumed the post of prime minister. He was elected president in 2014 and re-elected twice since, most recently in 2023.

During his time at the top, he had survived many storms, including huge opposition protests in 2013 that engulfed the vast majority of the country and a coup attempt in 2016.

Some analysts had already suggested that the loss of İstanbul and the capital Ankara to the opposition in last municipal polls in 2019 signaled a turning point in the fortunes of Erdoğan and his party. The huge blow dealt this time around could prove fatal, some observers have said.

Even before Sunday’s poll, Erdoğan had suggested that the 2023 election that saw him re-elected president with 52 percent of the vote would be his last.

Bayram Balcı, a researcher at France’s Sciences Po university, says this possibility is now all but certain.

“He is capable of a surprise and of deciding to end his career,” he said. It would be “a way to go out in style, all the while remaining faithful to his vision of Islam and his religious beliefs, according to which nothing on this earth is permanent.”

President İmamoğlu?

With another decisive victory against Erdoğan’s ruling party, İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has cemented a leader’s role within Turkey’s notoriously fractious opposition.

He has the stature, the popularity, sense of media and above all, ambition.

During the run-up to Sunday’s vote, Erdoğan pushed his message that İmamoğlu — whose name he rarely mentioned — was a “part-time mayor” consumed by presidential ambitions.

The same charge has been levelled by his opponents within his own CHP.

But since his first victory in 2019, he has faced legal troubles that could mar his political future.

An İstanbul court in late 2022 sentenced İmamoğlu to two years, seven months in prison and barred him from politics for allegedly insulting members of Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK).

İmamoğlu has appealed, meaning that he has continued to serve as mayor while putting his fate in the hands of judges whose impartially he questioned.

It is not clear how the case against him will evolve ahead of the next presidential election in Turkey, which is set for 2028.

© Agence France-Presse

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