Erdoğan opponents take election lead in key Turkish cities

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Istanbul’s opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu was leading against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party in Sunday’s pivotal municipal elections, according to preliminary returns.

İmamoğlu was ahead of Erdoğan’s mayoral candidate Murat Kurum by 8 percentage points on about 50 per cent of the vote, with almost a third of ballot boxes opened, according to state news service Anadolu Agency.

Political contests took place across Turkey on Sunday, but no local election carries as much national or international resonance as the one in Istanbul, where Kurum is seeking to unseat İmamoğlu, the opposition’s pre-eminent leader and the most credible rival to Erdoğan.

Sunday’s municipal elections come after Erdoğan won last May’s presidential contest in a crushing defeat for Turkey’s opposition. Erdoğan, who has ruled Turkey for more than two decades, has led a vigorous bid for his party to seize control of Istanbul, home to almost 16mn people and one of the opposition’s few bastions of power.

“No local election has ever been this important,” said Özer Sencar, a pollster and political analyst at Ankara-based research group Metropoll.

The political opposition was also well ahead in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city, with incumbent mayor Mansur Yavaş leading by more than 20 percentage points on almost 60 per cent of the vote, according to early returns published by Anadolu. Yavaş was up by such a margin that he claimed victory in the race even though less than a fifth of ballot boxes had been opened in the city of almost 6mn people.

The elections come at a time when Turkey is in the throes of a long-running and painful inflation crisis. Concerns are also growing both among international observers and within many parts of Turkish society over Erdoğan’s slide towards autocracy.

Whoever wins control of Istanbul will inherit a powerhouse that, with its subsidiary corporations, has an annual budget of about TL516bn ($16bn) and around 40,000 employees, giving its mayor a powerful platform from which to directly access voters.

İmamoğlu, 53, won control of Istanbul from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) in 2019 after a highly charged election in which the president’s candidate lost both in the initial polls and a repeat round of voting that followed.

In the intervening years, İmamoğlu, a charismatic campaigner, has become a leading force in the Republican People’s party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition group, and is widely seen as a future presidential candidate.

“İmamoğlu is a very important figure. He’s not just the mayor of Istanbul but the only person willing to challenge the government. Everyone else is afraid to speak up,” said Ahmet Dil, a 58-year-old Istanbul resident.

Mansur Yavaş, mayoral candidate for Ankara from the opposition Republican People’s party © Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Erdoğan, who himself climbed into the national spotlight as Istanbul mayor in 1994, has campaigned aggressively for Kurum, 47, during the 2024 election, holding rallies across the city including on Saturday. Turkey’s state-aligned media has also covered every twist and turn of Kurum’s campaign, while Erdoğan sent top ministers to lobby for his candidate in Istanbul.

The outcome of the election will probably be determined not just by the turnout of AKP and CHP voters, but also by those planning to vote for smaller political parties. The pro-Kurdish DEM, the Islamist New Welfare party and nationalist İYİ Parti are all running their own mayoral candidates in major cities, and analysts expect some of those groups’ supporters to ultimately back the AKP or CHP candidate.

Erdoğan, who rose to national power at the turn of the millennium with an Islamist-leaning platform, remains one of Turkey’s most popular politicians and its most important leader since founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He has zigzagged across the country in recent months, seeking to use his star power to bolster support for AKP candidates.

“Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is doing what is necessary in the interests of Turkey,” said Aziz Bulut, a 55-year-old resident of the south-eastern city of Şanlıurfa, citing the president’s “conservative” values and patriotism. “Until the end, until he dies, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”

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