ANKARA – The party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared set to lose political control of the capital and several other big cities in Sunday’s local elections, a rare electoral setback in the Turkish leader’s 16-year rule that capped months of growing economic malaise.
In Ankara, the candidate from the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was defeated 47.3% to 50.6% by a rival from the social-democratic CHP, according to preliminary results released by state news agency Anadolu.
“Despite all the pressure, people chose democracy,” CHP head Kemal Kilicdaroglu told reporters at the party’s headquarters in Ankara, where thousands of flag-waving supporters had gathered.
In Istanbul, both AKP and CHP claimed they had prevailed with the two candidates separated by a razor-thin margin. With 98.8% of the votes counted, AKP candidate and former prime minister Binali Yildirim was credited with 48.71% of the votes, while his CHP rival Ekrem Imamoglu had 48.65%, according to Anadolu.
Erdogan was not himself on the ballot, and even if the AKP loses Istanbul, he would still have enormous power. His five-year presidential mandate spans 2023, he has a firm grip on the national assembly and remains Turkey’s most popular political figure.
But national results showed a dramatic loss of steam for the AKP. The party appeared to have lost in the resort town of Antalya and the nation’s cotton-production hotspot, Adana. Overall, the party won in 40 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, according to preliminary results. That compared with 53 in the previous municipal elections in 2014. Helping offset the drop was victory in 12 provinces by AKP’s election partner, the nationalist MHP. But the combined performance of the alliance was below what the AKP had achieved alone in the previous ballot.
“It does show some degree of weakening on the part of the ruling party,” said Soli Ozel, a Turkish political commentator and professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.
Losing Ankara and other large cities could complicate the AKP’s ability to look after its voters, especially the needy and elderly, who receive everything from food allowances to bags of coal in municipalities the party controls.
It could also invigorate Erdogan’s political opponents and become a chink in his armor.
“It would undermine his aura of invincibility,” Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of political-risk consulting firm Teneo Intelligence in London, said in a note to clients.
Erdogan conceded the loss of several cities, saying that was a normal outcome in democracies. Noting that no election was due until 2023, he pledged to turn his focus to a Turkish economy plagued by double-digit inflation, rising unemployment and a pummeled national currency.
“Without giving up on free-market economy rules, we will carefully enact a strong economic program,” Erdogan said Sunday evening in Istanbul.
On the campaign trail, Erdogan celebrated the completion of big projects, inaugurating a 50-mile railway line in Istanbul and a sprawling theme park in Ankara.
But the economic landscape is a far cry from 2017, when Turkey was the fastest-growing Group of 20 economy. Inflation stands at 20%. The construction sector, one of the country’s main economic drivers, has lost about a third of its three million jobs over the past year. And the Turkish lira, which had partly recovered from a rout last summer, was caught in heavy turbulence again this month.
Government officials say they need time to refashion an economic model that was too reliant on overseas borrowing and too focused on construction and outsize infrastructure projects.
Economists say the government did a good job in refraining from extravagant spending ahead of the election but warn that little has been done to deal with a pile of debt inherited from the boom years and sitting on the books of Turkey’s large corporations.
Denominated in foreign currencies, those loans have become much harder to repay in weaker lira, and will threaten Turkey’s financial stability unless the government promotes collective resolution of the problem, possibly with help from the International Monetary Fund, they say.
But Erdogan has repeatedly rejected the idea of seeking outside help, saying Turkey could put right its economy alone.
“I don’t really see Erdogan going to the IMF anytime soon,” said Ozel, the professor.