Erdogan set to lose Turkey's main cities in bitter election battle

Defeat in Istanbul or Ankara would represent a huge blow for country's leader

Photo: EPA Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Less than a year after President Tayyip Erdogan celebrated election triumph with fireworks in Ankara, Turkey’s omnipotent leader faces now the embarrassment of losing his capital in local polls marred by bitter campaign rhetoric and economic storm clouds.

Erdogan has ruled Turkey for 16 years with an ever-tightening grip and his June 2018 national election victory vastly expanded his presidential powers, alarming Western allies who fear Turkey is drifting deeper into authoritarianism. But the 65-year-old president is set to be brought down to earth on Sunday when Turks vote in municipal elections which threaten to inflict the first defeat for his Islamist-rooted AK Party in Ankara or the country’s biggest city and business hub, Istanbul. Such defeat in either city would bring to an end a quarter century of rule by Erdogan’s AKP and its Islamist predecessors, and deal a symbolic blow to a leader who launched his career in local politics and served as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. 

Thus, it is no surprise that Erdogan has portrayed the vote as an existential choice for Turkey, blasting his domestic opponents as terrorist supporters and even invoking the New Zealand mosque killings as examples of the broader threats he says Turkey faces.

“It is a matter of survival against those who want to divide this country and tear it to pieces,” he told supporters at a rally earlier this month in central Istanbul’s Eyup Sultan district, next to a 19th-century mosque.

He has toured the country for weeks speaking up to eight times a day - a punishing routine which showcased the supreme campaigning skills that have made him the most popular and powerful leader since modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It also highlighted that Erdogan’s growing reliance on divisive rhetoric since a currency crisis in August ended years of strong economic growth which had helped deliver successive election wins for his AKP, attracting support from well beyond its conservative Muslim core. Yet, a steep fall in the lira last Friday revived memories of last year’s meltdown, and provoked a flurry of stop-gap measures to halt a slump on the eve of voting which could erode support.

For many Turks, the vote is all about whether Erdogan can still deliver a decent standard of living.

“A crushing majority of people - including of course voters from the government party and its partners - think the economy is the number one problem in Turkey,” political analyst Murat Yetkin told Reuters.

Some polls give the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate in Ankara, Mansur Yavas, a lead over his AKP rival. In Istanbul, where the AKP is fielding former prime minister Binali Yildirim, the race appears close with the CHP. Other cities may also be seized by the secularist opposition party. Analysts caution against reading too much into polling data - Erdogan won a first-round presidential victory last year, defying many expectations - and even if the AKP were to lose, it would not diminish the president’s official powers. 

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