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Defiant opposition won Istanbul ‘with love’

Anindita Ramaswamy & Ergin Hava -

It’s too early to write Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political obituary, despite an emboldened opposition’s unprecedented victory in Istanbul’s mayoral re-vote.

Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) won the rerun triggered by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a second time. If the AKP thought losing the powerful mayoralty of Turkey’s largest city and economic heart for the first time in March was unthinkable, a second defeat seemed beyond the realm of possibility.

The losing candidate was ex-premier Binali Yildirim, but observers say it is Erdogan who will feel most keenly this biggest setback in his 16 years in power. Erdogan hasn’t lost an election since the AKP came to power in 2002. Istanbulites weren’t voting for the president — but they registered their protests against him and his party’s policies at the ballot box. Many within the AKP viewed the decision to force the revote as disastrous. The gamble didn’t pay off.

It could fuel the unease among Erdogan’s party members and opponents “that his career is now in irreversible decline,” says Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of research firm Teneo Intelligence.

Mehmet Gunal Olcer, the head of pollster Polimetre, says the second defeat in Istanbul marks the beginning of the end of Erdogan’s political career.

Olcer said that losing Istanbul strenghtens the opposition within the AKP, with splinter parties rearing their heads. The dissenters include AKP heavyweights. In April, former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed the AKP’s alliance with ultranationalists for the March election setback, in rare and harsh criticism. Ex-president Abdullah Gul and former economy minister Ali Babacan are speculated to launch a new party, according to several media reports. “Erdogan and the AKP have entered an irreversible path,

which will eventually lead to a constitutional change. We should expect a referendum or an early election within a year,” Olcer projects.

Yet Mehmet Ali Kulat of MAK polling agency thinks it’s too early to expect cracks in the AKP or an early election.

“Erdogan has the mandate as president until 2023. I do not see any concrete reason to reverse this at the moment,” Kulat says, and adds that “Turkey is already tired of too many polls over the past few years.” Turks voted last summer in presidential and parliamentary polls, called early by Erdogan, which cemented Turkey’s transition from a parliamentary model to an all-powerful presidential system.

This followed a 2017 constitutional referendum on an executive presidential system that Erdogan won with a slim majority.

Piccoli says the transition to the new presidential system “further isolated Erdogan within a small circle of sycophantic and poorly informed advisers,” and excepts policy mistakes to multiply. Olcer from Polimetre says the new system failed to fix the economic crisis, while concerns over rule of law have increased over the past year. It showed already in nationwide local elections in March, which dented the aura of invincibility around Erdogan, as voters hit hard by a recession punished the AKP in Ankara, Istanbul and other economic hubs.

After tweeting to congratulate Imamoglu late on Sunday, Erdogan wrote he would focus on domestic and foreign policy issues, the G20 summit in Japan and a trip to China.

With the economy in recession, Turkey is in the midst of another spat with the United States — which has threatened sanctions — over its purchase of an air defence system from Russia. There are fears that Erdogan could use judicial measures to stop Imamoglu from taking office — but he would risk mass protest and further economic destabilisation.

But Kulat says: “Polls also have shown any move to block him [Imamoglu] would backfire. Society is

tired of tension.” — dpa

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