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Turkey’s President Looks Headed for Stinging Defeat in Istanbul Election Redo

ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey suffered the biggest defeat of his political career on Sunday as his candidate for Istanbul mayor conceded defeat in a repeat election, two months after Mr. Erdogan’s party forced the cancellation of the same vote after it lost.

The Turkish news media reported that with 99 percent of votes counted, the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, was leading with 54 percent, compared with 44 or 45 percent for Mr. Erdogan’s chosen candidate, Binali Yildirim.

Two hours after polls closed, Mr. Yildirim went on national television and conceded defeat.

“As of now, my competitor Imamoglu is leading. I congratulate him, wish him success,” he said. “I wish our friend Ekrem Imamoglu will bring good services to Istanbul.”

The result wrests control over country’s largest city from Mr. Erdogan, ending his party’s 25-year dominance of the city. Opponents say such a loss cracks the president’s aura of invincibility and could be the beginning of the end of his 16-year rule over the country.

Istanbul is Mr. Erdogan’s home as well as political base, where he began his political career as mayor.

Appearing at a news conference on Sunday evening, Mr. Imamoglu said that “16 million Istanbul residents refreshed our belief in democracy and confidence in justice.”

He also called on Mr. Erdogan to work with him. “I am ready to work with you in harmony,” Mr. Imamoglu said. “I put myself up for that, and I announce this in front of all Istanbul people.”

Supporters whistled in the streets as they caught the results on their cellphones in outdoor cafes. A car raced through the streets, honking its horn as after a soccer match.

The vote “shows democracy is resilient and elections still matter,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Imamoglu won with a landslide — a 10-point lead — even though Erdogan mobilized all the state resources in this election.”

The mood had been tense in Istanbul during the day as people voted.

“The cancellation of the vote was completely unlawful and illegal,” said Hatice Eksioglu after casting her ballot. “I am certain that he will win, but I am afraid,” she said, referring to Mr. Erdogan.

Mr. Imamoglu, 49, is a former district mayor who was backed by an alliance of opposition parties, united by their rejection of Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian grip on Turkey.

This election was Mr. Imamoglu’s second victory. He first won the vote on March 31 by a small margin. But Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., contested the results, and the High Election Council ordered the do-over.

Besides the blow to Mr. Erdogan’s image and prestige, the loss of Istanbul will have practical political consequences for the Turkish leader, analysts said.

“Losing Istanbul would mean losing a significant revenue source for A.K.P.’s political machinery, ranging from subsidies to the party faithful to construction contracts and funds for pro-government media,” Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council for Foreign Relations, said before the vote.

“It would set off a chain reaction that can herald early elections later this year or in 2020,” she said.

Former President Abdullah Gul and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are both committed to breaking away and starting their own conservative movements, Ms. Aydintasbas said.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the Ankara director for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a research organization, predicted ahead of the election that the A.K.P. would grudgingly accept the results. But he said the party would seek to manage the change of power in Istanbul by “hollowing out the powers of metropolitan mayors in time.”

Mr. Erdogan grew up in a working-class district on the Golden Horn in Istanbul and embarked on his political career as a popular and energetic mayor of the city in the 1990s.

The city has remained in the hands of his party ever since, and he has transformed it with extensive infrastructure projects and grandiose signature constructions, including a vast hilltop mosque, high-rise towers and expanding suburbs.

But Mr. Erdogan’s popularity in Istanbul, which derived largely from delivering services to city residents, has waned in recent years as the construction boom has stalled and the economy has slipped into recession.

Unemployment and inflation have angered Turkish voters and cost Mr. Erdogan several of the largest cities, including the capital, Ankara, in local elections in March.

“Erdogan lost his magic touch,” said Mr. Cagaptay, the analyst. “Erdogan was this politician who came from the other side of the tracks, representing the voice of the common man, the pious, the dispossessed, making this his brand for nearly two decades. That is gone.”

Mr. Imamoglu has been compared to a young Mr. Erdogan because he comes from the same Black Sea region known for its fighting spirit, and for his personable and energetic attitude. He won voters’ support by offering a clean and all-embracing administration, tapping into a general weariness with the governing party and complaints of corruption and cronyism.

He promised that municipal workers’ jobs would be secure and that his administration would be nonpartisan.

“Nothing sticks to Imamoglu,” Mr. Cagaptay said. “He became the new Erdogan.”

Mr. Yildirim has been a close ally of Mr. Erdogan’s throughout his career, holding posts like transport minister and prime minister and, most recently, president of Parliament. He had seemed a reluctant candidate in the March campaign, but after the shock of losing, he adopted a new campaign style, meeting people on squares and in neighborhoods, and emphasizing his years of experience and knowledge.

The opposition faced an uneven playing field throughout both mayoral campaigns, with Mr. Erdogan maintaining control over the mainstream news media and blatantly using government and municipal resources to support his candidate.

A week before the election, the two candidates faced off in a live television debate — the first Turkey had witnessed in 17 years — though it did not seem to tip the balance definitively. Mr. Imamoglu remained narrowly ahead in the polls.

Tensions rose in the final days before Sunday’s vote as Mr. Erdogan excoriated the opposition candidate while never uttering his name, and blasted the Republican People’s Party as undemocratic and the source of years of discrimination against religiously conservative citizens.

“What we have been having since March is a psychological war,” Ilayda Kocoglu, a spokeswoman for the Imamoglu campaign, said ahead of Sunday’s vote.

On Thursday night, Mr. Erdogan ramped up the pressure, warning that even if the opposition candidate won the mayorship, legal action could remove him from office for an insult that Mr. Imamoglu allegedly made to a regional governor during a recent argument.

“If the justice decides, his mayorship will be revoked,” Mr. Erdogan said in a live television interview on Thursday night. Mr. Imamoglu has denied uttering any insult.

Mr. Imamoglu avoided negative personal campaigning, but criticized the A.K.P. and the previous municipal administration for wastefulness and overspending on items like expensive cars, residences provided to officials and overblown bids for public services.

His attacks clearly hit home, as the municipal administration plastered the city with banners declaring numerous completed good works, with the slogan “Service is not overspending.”

But the uneven spread of Mr. Erdogan’s economic miracle, which returned years of growth and lifted millions out of poverty but has begun to founder, has left many in the city angry and struggling.

In a working-class neighborhood in Sancaktepe, which both candidates and Mr. Erdogan visited in the last days of the campaign, voters were full of complaints but seemed divided politically.

Sancaktepe is typical of Istanbul’s poorer, outlying districts, where roads and subways tail off and public services fall short.

At a campaign breakfast hosted by Mr. Imamoglu, a group of mukhtars, the elected heads of city neighborhoods, complained that catching the attention of City Hall was extremely hard. Even if the president made promises, his administration did not follow through, said Ahmet Guney, a mukhtar from the working-class district of Kagithane.

“The discourse of the president stays in the air,” he said.

Both of the main campaigns fielded ranks of lawyers to watch the voting at every ballot box across the municipality. Opposition lawyers went through exhaustive training in the weeks before the election and were told to avoid arguments over the ballot box but to make written objections for every irregularity.

Lawyers from both campaigns said they had agreed on new lists of polling station officials, all certified public officials, to prevent a repeat of the accusations that caused the March 31 election to be annulled.

Source: NYT > World

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