Turkish opposition party gains

Large-city mayors keep their seats in setback for Erdogan

A woman votes at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, March 31, 2024. Turkey is holding local elections on Sunday that will decide who gets to control Istanbul and other key cities. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A woman votes at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, March 31, 2024. Turkey is holding local elections on Sunday that will decide who gets to control Istanbul and other key cities. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey's main opposition party retained its control over key cities and made huge gains elsewhere in Sunday's local elections, preliminary results showed, in a major upset to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had set his sights on retaking control of those urban areas.

With nearly 60% of the ballot boxes counted, incumbent Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, was leading in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city and economic hub, according to state broadcaster TRT. Mansur Yavas, the mayor of the capital Ankara, retained his seat with a large margin, the results indicated.

The CHP was leading in 36 of Turkey's 81 provinces, according to the results reported by TRT.

The vote was seen as a barometer of Erdogan's popularity as he sought to win back control of key urban areas he lost to the opposition in elections five years ago. The CHP's victory in Ankara and Istanbul in 2019 had shattered Erdogan's aura of invincibility.

The main battleground for the 70-year-old Turkish president was Istanbul, a city of 16 million people where he was born and raised and where he began his political career as mayor in 1994.

The result came as a boost for the opposition, which was left divided and demoralized after a defeat to Erdogan and his ruling Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in last year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

"The voters decided to establish a new political order in Turkey," CHP leader Ozgur Ozel told a crowd of jubilant supporters. "Today, the voters decided to change the 22-year-old picture in Turkey and open the door to a new political climate in our country."

A large crowd, meanwhile, gathered outside Ankara City Hall to celebrate Yavas' victory. "Ankara is proud of you!" supporters chanted.

Sinan Ulgen, director of the Istanbul-based Edam think tank, said "the surprising outcome" was due to voters wanting to punish the ruling party over the "depth of an economic malaise." Skyrocketing inflation has left many Turkish households struggling to afford basic goods.

AKP supporters opted to stay away from the ballot stations or voted for other parties, Ulgen said.

"Turnout was relatively low compared to past elections," he said. "There were cross-party shifts in the vote, which did not happen in the nationals elections because of stronger ideological attachments. This time around the economy prevailed over identity."

Some 61 million people, including more than a million first-time voters, were eligible to cast ballots for all metropolitan municipalities, town and district mayorships as well as neighborhood administrations.

Turnout was around 76%, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency, compared with 87% last year.

Some 594,000 security personnel were on duty across the country to ensure the vote goes smoothly. Nevertheless, one person was killed and 11 others hurt in the city of Diyarbakir where a dispute over the election of a neighborhood administrator turned violent, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. At least six people were also injured in fighting that broke out in the nearby province of Sanliurfa.

"According to the data we have obtained, it seems our citizens' trust in us, their faith in us has paid off," Imamoglu said.

Imamoglu won some 50% of the votes in Istanbul while AKP's candidate Murat Kurum, a former urbanization and environment minister, received 41%, according to TRT. Polls had pointed to a close race between the two.

Imamoglu -- a popular figure touted as a possible future challenger to Erdogan -- ran without the support of some of the parties that helped him to victory in 2019. Both the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Equality and Democracy Party and the nationalist IYI Party fielded their own candidates in the race.

A six-party opposition alliance that was led by CHP disintegrated after it failed to oust Erdogan in last year's election, unable to capitalize on the economic crisis and the government's initially poor response to last year's devastating earthquake that killed more than 53,000 people.

A new religious-conservative party, the New Welfare Party, or YRP, appeared to have attracted votes from AKP supporters who have been disillusioned with the government's handling of the economy.

In Turkey's mainly Kurdish-populated southeast, the DEM Party was on course to win many of the municipalities, but it's unclear whether it would be allowed to retain them. In previous years, Erdogan's government removed elected pro-Kurdish mayors from office for alleged links to Kurdish militants and replaced them with state-appointed trustees.

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