Supporters of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) hold a banner picturing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they shout slogans during a gathering outside the party's headquarters a day after the local elections on April 1, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. Picture: AFP/OZAN KOSE
Supporters of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) hold a banner picturing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they shout slogans during a gathering outside the party's headquarters a day after the local elections on April 1, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. Picture: AFP/OZAN KOSE

Istanbul — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knows better than anyone that Turkish cities are the battlegrounds where political fortunes are made and lost.

In less than a decade, Erdoğan went from Istanbul mayor to become the country’s most dominant leader in more than 50 years. Now the opposition has prised control of Turkey’s biggest cities from the president’s alliance, Erdoğan will have a harder time catering to the needs of his electoral base, threatening the foundation of his 16-year rule.

Erdoğan clings to a narrow lead over his rivals after his AK Party managed to come first nationwide in Sunday’s municipal ballot. With no elections scheduled for more than four years, however, the next period will be a test of just how precarious his position has become after losing cities that are home to at least half of Turkey’s population of 82-million.

A major risk is that sway over cities will give the opposition ample time to build bridges across the polarised system fashioned by Erdoğan, who has successfully sidelined rivals by portraying them as enemies of the core values held by his conservative base.

“Mayors won’t transform their cities but they will change the way Erdoğan supporters view opposition parties, boosting their chances in the next electoral race,” said Mert Yildiz, founder of political advisory Foresight in Istanbul. “It will also make it more difficult for Erdoğan to use municipal resources to maintain a social safety net for his base.”

Scaling the ranks

Erdoğan became Istanbul’s mayor in 1994 after a campaign he fought as the underdog running for Turkey’s main Islamist party, then only a small opposition group. But his party’s grip on power grew stronger thanks to Erdoğan’s success in delivering improved roads, cleaner water and a support system for the poor.

On Sunday, Turkey’s biggest cities turned against him for the first time since that electoral victory in Istanbul catapulted him to the top of the country’s pecking order.

The capital, Ankara, and cities along the Mediterranean coast slipped from the grasp of Erdoğan’s nationalist alliance in an election up-ended by a raging recession and a recent run on the Turkish lira. Erdoğan’s ruling bloc largely stood its ground across much of the country’s rural interior.

Istanbul cliffhanger

After hours of competing victory declarations in commercial hub Istanbul, the election board said the opposition candidate had edged ahead in official counting. Erdoğan has yet to concede, although his ally in Turkey’s largest city, former prime minister Binali Yildirim, acknowledged that he trails by 25,000 votes in the race.

“The alliance losing control over the big cities constitutes a clear warning signal that people are not satisfied with the current economic policy of the regime,” Nora Neuteboom, an economist at ABN Amro Bank in Amsterdam, said in an e-mail. “The current government is likely to have a limited appetite for reforms, and may instead focus more on quick fixes, such as flooding the economy with more cheap credit.”

The Turkish lira switched between losses and gains on Monday before depreciating 1.6% against the dollar at 12.05pm in Istanbul on Tuesday. Before the election, authorities had been preventing foreign banks from accessing lira ahead of the vote, making it virtually impossible for them to short the currency.

His election

Erdoğan understood what was at stake even though his name wasn’t on the ballot. In the run-up to the vote, the president held more than 100 campaign rallies, sometimes speaking as much as eight times a day.

Erdoğan’s AK Party-led alliance captured 51.6% of the national vote, with 99% of the ballots counted, state-run Anadolu Agency reported. The opposing camp, led by the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, had 37.6%, while the pro-Kurdish HDP won 4.2% after sitting out the races beyond its stronghold in eastern Turkey.

Most of the municipalities CHP won from the ruling party or its nationalist partner MHP are those where unemployment is in double digits, official data shows. Besides Ankara, Istanbul and the southern province of Antalya, that also includes conservative strongholds such as Kirsehir and Bolu, CHP also won in Adana and Mersin, municipalities with an average jobless rate of 11.4%.

On Monday, the greatest uncertainty remained over the fight for the mayor’s office in Istanbul. Opposition CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu took a narrow lead with 48.8% of the vote, according to the country’s high election board. AKP’s Yildirim was trailing with 48.5%.

“The election board will decide the winner,” Yildirim said in Istanbul. “We know how to congratulate our opponents but the process is not finished yet.”

With Taylan Bilgic and Ugur Yilmaz

Bloomberg