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Erdogan At a Crossroad

Losing Ankara and Istanbul is a significant defeat for Turkey’s President

By: EBR - Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2019

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The Turkish president also explicitly threatened opposition leaders and voters with court cases and the replacement of winning candidates with state-appointed trustees.The election process itself was mired in controversies related to irregularities in the voting and ballot-counting processes, and at least four people were killed during the election.
The Turkish president also explicitly threatened opposition leaders and voters with court cases and the replacement of winning candidates with state-appointed trustees.The election process itself was mired in controversies related to irregularities in the voting and ballot-counting processes, and at least four people were killed during the election.

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By Aykan Erdemir*

Turkey’s battered opposition secured key victories in Sunday’s municipal elections, winning back the mayorships of Ankara and Istanbul for the first time in 25 years.

While the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the majority of total ballots cast nationwide, the results dealt a major blow to Turkey’s seemingly invincible President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A pleasant surprise, against long odds

Thanks to Erdogan’s use of government power to tilt the playing field in the AKP’s favor, last Sunday’s elections were neither fair nor fully free.

To begin with, Turkish media are almost entirely controlled by Erdogan. They spared little time for the opposition’s campaign, while providing ample – and often fawning — coverage of AKP efforts.

The Turkish president also explicitly threatened opposition leaders and voters with court cases and the replacement of winning candidates with state-appointed trustees.

The election process itself was mired in controversies related to irregularities in the voting and ballot-counting processes, and at least four people were killed during the election.

Given the tilted playing field, the opposition made remarkable gains at the ballot box. A third of the country’s provinces flipped on Sunday.

The secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) won back eight provinces from the AKP, while Erdogan’s own ultranationalist allies (MHP) snatched another seven from the AKP party.

An important shift economically

The CHP now controls 21 out of 81 provinces. Crucially, those 21 provinces together account for almost half the country’s population and generate over 60% of Turkey’s GDP.

Perhaps the biggest real-life fallout for Erdogan and his followers is that the share of the economy that AKP municipalities control shrank from 75% to 30%. That greatly reduces the party’s ability to create “patronage“ opportunities via local government contracts.

The HDP’s comeback

Against all odds, meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) secured its rule in many Kurdish-dominated provinces.

Branded as “terrorist” by Turkey’s leader, and with thousands of its members in jail on trumped-up charges, the HDP managed to hold on to at least seven provinces, and even captured another – Kars — from the MHP ultranationalists.

Losing Ankara and Istanbul

Losing Ankara and Istanbul is both a significant symbolic as well as substantive defeat for Erdogan. Ankara is the capital of Turkey’s secular republic, signifying political power.

And Istanbul is not only Turkey’s economic and financial center, but also Erdogan’s hometown. It is the city where he launched his political career in the 1990s as mayor – and where he never before lost a major vote.

Controlling the political reins of Istanbul also provided important economic spoils for Erdogan to prop up the AKP and its clients. As the president himself repeatedly said in his campaign, “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.”

Those are political fighting words that may now come to haunt him.

Erdogan at a crossroads

The Turkish president is now at a crossroads. He can either focus on the economic crisis that his mismanagement has brought about, or he can try to contest the ballot results to win back Istanbul and other municipalities.

Turkey’s NATO allies should urge Erdogan to respect the election results.

As Turkey contends with its first recession in a decade – and with a full-blown economic crisis looming – the Turkish strongman should be reminded that his foul play would be welcomed neither by the tens of millions who voted against him, nor by the global investors who watch his erratic stewardship with concern.

* A senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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