Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags as they wait for his arrival at the Presidential Palace on April 17, 2017 in Ankara Turkey. (Photo: Elif Sogut/Getty Images)

Setback For Erdogan: Turkey’s Ruling AK Party Loses Capital Ankara, Possibly Istanbul in Municipal Elections

Economic downturn seen as major reason for embarrassing defeat

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suffered an embarrassing blow as his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the mayorship in the capital Ankara and headed toward defeat in Istanbul, the country’s largest city.

According to media reports, the main CHP opposition party’s candidate won 48.79 percent of the ballots in Istanbul, while the AK Party’s candidate garnered 48.51%.

Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper reported that the AK Party would contest those results.

The struggling economy was a central theme in Turkey’s local elections, in which voters cast ballots for mayors and heads of district across the nation.

Veteran journalist Kemal Can said Erdogan’s party would not take the setback lightly.

“It will make them upset and worried,” Can said. “More importantly, these two cities [Ankara and Istanbul] and others around [the state] have the [largest] populations in Turkey. They have the social and economic dynamics that are [most] important.”

Ibrahim Enes Ozkan, an economist with the NGO Freedom Research Association and a researcher at Istanbul University, noted that Erdogan avoided focusing on the economy in the lead-up to the vote and instead employed conservative, nationalist rhetoric in a bid to shore up the support of his base.

“The last two years, the Turkish economy… has been in danger,” Ozkan told The Media Line. “[But] they [the AKP] use religious discourse [to shift attention away].”

The CHP, meanwhile, claimed victory in Ankara and then in Istanbul, although the central elections committee has not yet released the final results for the latter race. The CHP hoped to win over traditional Erdogan supporters due to the country’s economic struggles.

It would mark the first time in nearly two decades that Erdogan’s party has not maintained political control over these cities.

In Istanbul’s heavily AKP-supporting neighborhood of Piri Paşa, hundreds of CHP members gathered for a rally for their district candidate. Wearing a CHP red scarf and button, retired teacher Yurdanur said she was optimistic that Erdogan would receive her message.

“All the people that are against this situation in Turkey are united now,” she affirmed. “We need to stop this system after all. Our chance is very high this time, we will win.”

In Istanbul, Erdogan installed as a candidate former prime minister Binali Yildirim. Yet the man who previously helped lead the entire country apparently was unable to achieve victory.

A loss for Erdogan in Istanbul would be especially disconcerting given the city is his hometown and where he entered politics, becoming its mayor in the 1990s.

The defeat is also stunning considering Erdogan’s widespread control over the media. Many Turkish news outlets were bought by his allies and several opposition outlets were shut down or their journalists imprisoned.

Gurkan Ozturan, executive manager of Dokuz 8, told The Media Line that the campaign process was biased in favor of the AKP, as opposition candidates were unable to convey their platforms due to skewed coverage by state-run media in particular.

“One side has had a disproportionate advantage,” he said, adding that, “the other side [opposition] was put under pressure.”

Dokuz 8 set up a media center in Istanbul and, along with NGOs and various political parties, dispatched hundreds of volunteers to monitor the polls. By mid-day Sunday, no major problems were reported, although some have since raised accusations of irregularities.

The tight vote is an example of how the state of the economy is one of the few potential checks on Erdogan’s power. Another is his dependence on the United States, to which he backed down last summer by freeing a U.S. pastor after Washington imposed sanctions and tariffs.

Amid a major diplomatic row with President Donald Trump, the Turkish lira went into free fall, losing 30 percent of its value. This led to double-digit inflation and thus rising food prices for everyone, including Erdogan backers.

In response, the government set up food stalls that sell items such as lentils and potatoes at below market value.

Nevertheless, by the end of 2018 the Turkish economy had formally entered a recession.

As the opposition was claiming victory, Erdogan said his attention would shift to combatting terrorism. However, he may not be able to evade questions about what do about the faltering economy.

Erdogan in the past favored large construction projects financed by foreign loans, but these have the effect of increasing the country’s already crushing debt.

Ozkan, the economist, stated that while investors have traditionally been attracted to Turkey because of the size of its economy, an overall lack of confidence is beginning to take root.

“If foreign and resident investors cannot see the future,” he concluded, “then, they’re not going to spend their money.”

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