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Turkey's Erdogan looks vulnerable after Istanbul embarrassment

A scene from Imamoglu's victory speech last night in Istanbul. Photo: Mehmet Eser/Anadolu Agency/Getty

An election some feared would be the last gasp for Turkish democracy has instead emboldened the opposition and stoked belief that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is vulnerable.

Catch up quick: The ruling AKP already lost the powerful Istanbul mayoralty on March 31, by 0.2%. But Erdogan refused to accept the result and forced a rerun. On Sunday, Ekrem Imamoglu of the center-left CHP won by a stunning 9.2%, dealing Erdogan the most damaging electoral defeat of a political career that began when he was himself elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994.

Between the lines: It was widely believed that Erdogan would only force fresh elections in Istanbul, a city he views as central to his hold on Turkey, if victory was assured. Instead, Turkey's financial and cultural capital will change hands after 25 years of AKP control.

  • Istanbul is vital to the AKP’s finances and political patronage system, Lisel Hintz of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said today at a Washington Institute event.
  • “The books are going to open, and we’re going to see what was being done in Istanbul for all these years,” she added, before cautioning that Erdogan and his allies could thwart Imamoglu's ability to govern.

The big picture: Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics since becoming prime minister in 2003, overseeing an economic boom and racking up victory after victory on conservative Islamist platforms that emphasize his man-of-the-people credentials.

  • He slowly sliced away at Turkish democracy for years, according to Soner Cagaptay, author of "The New Sultan." After a failed coup in 2016, he gave up the pretense, demonizing his opponents and consolidating power in a new executive system.
  • Cagaptay argues that Erdogan is the “inventor of 21st century populism” — a pioneer among the strongmen who portray their followers as the only “good citizens” and frame checks on their power as rejections of the popular will.
  • But he's been weakened by an economic downturn and now faces a resurgent opposition. “Erdogan has created a new Erdogan,” Cagaptay says, arguing that it's Imamoglu who can now claim to represent those persecuted by the establishment.

What’s next: The soft-spoken Imamoglu may have offered a new path for the opposition. He emphasized inclusiveness and refused to take Erdogan’s bait, while making inroads with his base.

  • There might not be an opportunity to test that path anytime soon. Turkey’s next elections aren’t due until June 2023.
  • By then, Turkey could face both an economic crisis and a geostrategic one, as the alliance with the U.S. breaks down in part over Erdogan’s decision to buy s-400 missiles from Russia.

The bottom line: Erdogan has lost Istanbul, but he still has extraordinary control over Turkey’s politics, judiciary and media. Sunday’s result shows he can be defeated, but not anytime soon.