Turkey's opposition defeated Erdogan in key local elections

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Monday to correct the mistakes that led to his party's defeat in local elections as the opposition used the economic crisis to alienate Muslim voters, casting doubt on his reform plans.

Sunday's vote marked the worst defeat for Erdogan and his AK Party (AKP) in more than 20 years in power, reviving the opposition and positioning Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu as the main contender for the presidency.

Redrawing the political map long dominated by the AKP, the Republican People's Party (CHP) won the popular vote for the first time in decades and swept most major cities, making inroads into conservative central Turkey.

Analysts said voters had lost patience with both 70% inflation and a cost-of-living crisis fueled by Erdogan's divisive political style.

The result crushed his hopes of adopting a new constitution, which could extend his rule beyond 2028, when his term ends, they said. Although the AKP and its allies hold a majority in parliament, Erdogan will need broad support or a successful referendum for a new constitution.

Erdogan delivered a somber and introspective speech early Monday morning. “This is not an end for us, but actually a turning point,” he said, acknowledging the “loss of height” for the AKP.

“If we made a mistake, we will correct it,” he told a crowd at the AKP headquarters in Ankara, without specifying what changes he might make within his party or in policy.

In response, Turkish stocks rose and the lira – which has shed more than 80% of its value in five years – hit another record low against the dollar in a holiday for many global financial markets.

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Erdogan made an abrupt turnaround in economic policy after winning last year's national election, resulting in aggressive interest rates to curb inflationary expectations.

Erdogan urged patience with slow economic growth and high borrowing costs, promising relief later this year, and Finance Minister Mehmet Simcek said on Monday that the belt-tightening program would continue.

But AKP election candidates won in the cities of Istanbul and Ankara and even deep pro-Erdogan strongholds such as Bursa, Afyonkarahisar and Atiyaman provinces.

“It's mainly an economic and especially inflation… story. I think voters decided to punish Erdogan for these reasons,” said Wolfgang Piccoli, co-head of political risk consultancy Teneo.

The AKP lost control of industrial areas where large numbers of workers are on the minimum wage, which has pushed inflation back despite big raises, he said.

The AKP as a whole “suffered from overconfidence,” Piccoli said, pointing to the victory of the Islamist New Welfare Party, which emerged as the third largest party in a big surprise with 6.2% support.

Analysts said New Welfare benefited from taking a tougher stance than Erdogan against Israel on the Gaza conflict, which helped draw loyal voters away from the Islamist-rooted AKP.

The CHP — the party of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — won 38% of support nationwide, more than two points ahead of the AKP and shattering the ceiling of 25% support it had achieved this century.

The opposition Kumhuriyet newspaper called it “a historic victory” that taught Erdogan a lesson.

The CHP's Imamoglu won 51% of support in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, 11 percentage points ahead of his AKP challenger despite polls pointing to a close contest.

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He won despite the collapse of an opposition coalition after electoral defeats last year, reaching out to Kurds and others outside the usually secular CHP base.

“The era of one-man rule has ended today,” Imamoglu, 53, told thousands of supporters Sunday evening.

The former businessman, who entered politics in 2008, defeated Erdogan's candidate in local elections five years ago, ending 25 years of rule by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors in the city. He is currently said to be contesting the presidential election.

“We didn't vote for (AKP) because of economic conditions and unfulfilled promises,” said accountant Onur Hizmetci, 42, who said he had voted for AKP in the past 15 years.

“All parties must move away from polarization and do something for our country in unity,” he said in a public square on the Asian side of Istanbul. “People are sick of fighting and arguing.”

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