Turkey’s opposition gains ground, challenging Erdogan in local elections

Turkey’s opposition delivered a significant electoral defeat to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Sunday, in a local election that underscored the opposition’s resurgence and highlighted Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu as a formidable contender against Erdogan.

With the majority of votes tallied, Imamoglu led the Istanbul mayoral race by 10 percentage points, asserting his dominance in Turkey’s most populous city. Meanwhile, his party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), not only held onto Ankara but also secured 15 additional mayoral positions across the country.

This outcome represents the most severe setback for Erdogan and the AKP during their two-decade tenure, potentially marking a shift in Turkey’s politically divided landscape. Erdogan acknowledged the election results as a “turning point” in an address delivered past midnight.

Analysts attribute the AKP’s underperformance to escalating inflation, disillusionment among Islamist voters, and Imamoglu’s broad appeal that extends beyond the CHP’s secular base.

Imamoglu, 53, addressed his enthusiastic supporters late on Sunday, with some calling for Erdogan’s resignation. “Those who fail to grasp the nation’s message will ultimately lose,” he stated. “Tonight, 16 million residents of Istanbul have sent a clear message to our opponents and the president,” added Imamoglu, who transitioned from business to politics in 2008 and is now seen as a likely presidential challenger.

Erdogan, who once served as Istanbul’s mayor in the 1990s, vigorously campaigned in the lead-up to these crucial municipal elections, viewed by analysts as a test of his enduring appeal and the opposition’s resilience.

Speaking to his supporters at the AKP headquarters in Ankara, Erdogan conceded that his alliance had “lost ground” nationwide and pledged to heed the voters’ message. “We will rectify any mistakes and fill in any gaps in the coming years,” he affirmed.

In Ankara, CHP Mayor Mansur Yavas celebrated a resounding victory over his AKP opponent, adding to Erdogan’s challenges.

With 92.92% of the ballots counted in Istanbul, Europe’s most populous city and Turkey’s economic powerhouse, Imamoglu garnered 50.92% of the vote, outpacing AKP’s Murat Kurum, who received 40.05%. Despite predictions of a close race in Istanbul and potential losses for the CHP nationwide, preliminary results from the state-run Anadolu Agency indicated the AKP and its primary ally relinquished control of 19 key municipalities, including significant industrial cities like Bursa and Balikesir.

For the first time in 35 years, the CHP led by almost 1% of the vote nationally, the results indicated.

Mert Arslanalp, an assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, described the election as Erdogan’s “most severe defeat” since his ascent to national power in 2002.