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Municipal elections on Sunday proved a watershed moment in Turkish politics, a major setback for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). For the first time in a quarter century, the opposition seized control of both Turkey’s political capital, Ankara, and – in a result now being challenged – its commercial center, Istanbul.
While the AKP claimed victory at a national level, analysts said the election results were an indication the party’s veneer of invincibility is giving way. But for Mr. Erdoğan, they said, who employed divisive and incendiary rhetoric at more than 100 rallies, the result represented a personal failure. Mr. Erdoğan “turned it into a referendum, he made a strategic error by marrying these elections to himself,” says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University. “Had he stayed on the sidelines the results might have been different.”
“Once you call people traitors, people – even AK Party folks – get alienated,” says Yilmaz, an electrician in Istanbul who once campaigned for the AKP but this time backed the opposition. “Now the AK Party is going to have to step back and regain its footing. It needs to change.”
When the Turkish electrician, a longtime supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party, backed the opposition Sunday in Istanbul, his vote was cast without joy, and with little expectation of change.
Instead, it contributed to a watershed moment in Turkish politics, a major setback for Mr. Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in municipal elections nationwide that the president had declared critical to Turkey’s survival.
For the first time in a quarter century, the opposition seized control of both Turkey’s political capital, Ankara, and – by the slimmest of margins, in a result now being challenged by the AKP – its commercial center, Istanbul, where Mr. Erdoğan once was mayor.
While the AKP claimed victory at a national level, analysts said the election results were the first indication the ruling party’s veneer of invincibility is giving way, and that its days in power may be numbered. But for Mr. Erdoğan, they said, who campaigned relentlessly with a schedule of more than 100 rallies, the result represented a personal failure.
The rallies were marked by divisive and incendiary rhetoric in which Mr. Erdoğan labeled opponents as “terrorists,” threatened them with prosecution, and blamed “enemies” in the West for Turkey’s economic malaise, giving the Istanbuli electrician every reason to vote against him.
The turn away from the AKP by this small shop owner, Yilmaz – who once actively campaigned for the Islamist-leaning party, but today refuses even to give his full name for fear of retribution – is emblematic of the broader disillusion with Mr. Erdoğan’s combative and authoritarian style as well as the tanking economy, as shown in the election results.
“Once you call people traitors, people – even AK Party folks – get alienated,” Yilmaz says on the day after the vote, as a toaster is brought in for repair.
“Now there’s competition [that’s] going to be good for everyone,” says the electrician, who during the campaign told the Monitor he did not see enough prospects for his own future to get married and have children.
“They antagonized everybody,” adds Yilmaz, whose father and grandfather supported the AKP and its Islamist antecedent, Welfare. “Now the AK Party is going to have to step back and regain its footing. It needs to change.”
As unofficial results were announced, the candidate of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ekrem İmamoğlu, changed his Twitter handle to read “Mayor of Istanbul.” But at dawn on Monday, AKP banners also sprung up in the city with the words “Thank you Istanbul,” above pictures of Mr. Erdoğan and the AKP’s mayoral candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, as if victory was theirs.
Despite the headline-grabbing losses, the AKP remains the most popular political party in Turkey, winning, with its nationalist coalition ally, 51.6 percent of the vote overall. On top of that, Mr. Erdoğan rules until 2023 with expanded executive powers that came into effect with a presidential vote last year.
But the Turkish economy entered recession in March, after years of exceptional growth since the AKP came to power in 2002. Among a host of economic concerns, the currency has lost one-third of its value in the past year, unemployment is high, and inflation hovers around 20 percent.
Mr. Erdoğan “turned it into a referendum, he made a strategic error by marrying these elections to himself,” says Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, adding that Turkish voters aren’t buying the president’s rhetoric anymore.
“Had he stayed on the sidelines the results might have been different. He wouldn’t have galvanized the opposition so much,” says Mr. Barkey. “So this is a slap at Erdoğan. Erdoğan is the big loser here.... People voted against him.
“At this stage, his big worry is that people will see him as a diminished figure,” says Mr. Barkey. “That’s why I don’t expect him to mellow.” The president and his party, he adds, have “gone too far down this road of traitors and evil-doers and all this, to suddenly say, ‘We are going to cooperate with them, we are going to accept this.’ ”
Erdoğan sees fault, not defeat
Indeed, in a midnight speech addressing supporters on election night, Mr. Erdoğan didn’t accept defeat. He said instead that “our nation” had given the AKP the highest number of votes in the 15th election in a row, and that it would control 56 percent of Turkey’s municipalities.
But Mr. Erdoğan also struck a more humble tone when he admitted, without mentioning Istanbul or Ankara, that the “sole reason” for any poor results was “our having been unable to explain ourselves sufficiently to our people [and] having been unable to enter their hearts sufficiently.”
That was despite addressing rallies in 59 provinces and 43 districts and on nine television programs, he noted, all of them promoted ubiquitously by pro-AKP media.
“We can’t seek out [fault] in our nation, we must seek it out in ourselves,” said Mr. Erdoğan. Starting the next morning, he vowed, “we will set to work identifying and addressing our shortcomings.”
An adviser to the president, Saadet Oruç, was less sanguine. “Sometimes storms are a good thing,” she was quoted as saying in the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper. “Your boat is a bit worn out, rocking from side to side, but afterwards there is no scum on deck.”
But that may not change the eventual historical verdict, that this election result marks the beginning of a transition away from Erdoğan-AKP dominance, says Sinan Ülgen, a Turkey expert and former Turkish diplomat with Carnegie Europe.
“With hindsight, we will read it as the first real sign of that decline, because fundamentally what needs to happen to stop this decline is for Turkey to generate a new positive narrative about itself, which would need to be led by an economic upturn,” says Mr. Ülgen.
The current political context “does not really give much optimism” for such a turnaround, says Mr. Ülgen, and without regeneration “it’s going to be a downward trend for the ruling party.”
The loss of Istanbul is especially symbolic for the AKP, since it was the place that Erdoğan cut his political teeth, starting in 1994 as mayor, and where the AKP devised its program.
“This will certainly appear as a weakening of Erdoğan’s rule, both internally and externally,” adds Mr. Ülgen. That’s because the opposition now control cities that generate some 70 percent of Turkey’s GDP, and “that’s where political and economic influence stems from.”
Turkey’s pro-AKP media put a brave spin on the results, suggesting that winning 778 municipalities is a “record that will be hard to beat.”
On the streets, there was still surprise – even from longtime supporters of the opposition.
“I thought the AKP was going to win again, clear and certain,” says a tea shop owner named Fatih. “They’re just going to win it back in the next election. Nothing’s going to change; the vote was just a reaction.”
A customer arrives, orders a sandwich, and complains about the price. Fatih dismisses the complaint by listing the rising price of tomatoes and cheese.
“I hope it’s all for the best for the country and the people; AKP will [be forced] to put itself in order,” says Fatih.
The opposition are a minority, he says, but there are signs that this time the AKP knew it had been beaten.
“After every election, they [AKP supporters] come by and make fun of us” for losing, says Fatih. “Today there was none of that. Just silence.”
Two Monitor researchers contributed reporting from Istanbul.