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A billboard reading "Thank you Istanbul" after Erdogan's presidential victory last year. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Voters in Turkey’s largest cities have dealt President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a sharp rebuke.

Why it matters: A sputtering economy and an uncharacteristically united opposition unleashed a tide of opposition victories in municipal elections across the country Sunday that were widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan.

Catch up quick:

  • Erdogan wasn't on the ballot, but he campaigned vigorously for weeks. He railed against enemies foreign and domestic and suggested only he was strong enough to defend Turkey against them.
  • Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its nationalist allies did manage 52% of the national vote. But they lost control of Ankara, the capital, and are set to lose in Istanbul — Turkey’s economic and cultural center and the city that made Erdogan a national figure when it elected him mayor in 1994.

The big picture: Soner Cagaptay, a fellow at the Washington Institute and author of "The New Sultan," tells me that if Erdogan is forced to concede Istanbul, “the idea that he’s the omnipotent president who controls everything will be challenged.”

Between the lines: Erdogan has increased his powers and deepened his control over the media during a tumultuous five-year period in which Turkey has had seven elections, Cagaptay says. That dynamic didn't change overnight. With no further elections scheduled until 2023, this could even be a chance for a reset — but that will depend on Erdogan’s next move.

  • At the time of writing, the AKP has yet to concede defeat in Istanbul despite an insurmountable (though razor-thin) deficit in the vote count. Erdogan's allies have suggested they’ll challenge the results. That’s unsurprising, as Istanbul is a crucial seat of power and source of funds for the AKP.

Cagaptay notes that the apparent victory in Istanbul has launched Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party into the national spotlight.

  • Imamoglu was up against “nearly insurmountable odds in a very hostile media environment,” Cagaptay says. When he began to pull ahead last night, the official news agency stopped publishing results. His victory speech wasn’t even aired on the major TV networks.
  • Still, the mayor-in-waiting campaigned skillfully and offered an attractive alternative at a time when Erdogan’s economic magic dust appears to have run out and his nationalist appeal is grating on some voters.

What to watch: “He could be someone, if he does become mayor of Istanbul, who could challenge Erdogan in 4.5 years’ time,” Cagaptay says of Imamoglu. Having carved that path to power himself, Erdogan will be watching closely.

Go deeper

45 mins ago - Health

Study: Common antidepressant guards against COVID hospitalization

A COVID-19 intensive Care Unit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on May 27, 2021. Photo: Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The readily available antidepressant fluvoxamine significantly reduced COVID-related hospitalizations, according to a large study published Wednesday.

Why it matters: The clinical trial suggests that a cheap, readily available drug could dramatically reduce serious illness and death when prescribed early.

By the numbers: Catholics, Biden and abortion

Expand chart
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

President Biden — the second Catholic U.S. president — will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday, as some church leaders debate whether to deny Holy Communion to politicians who support abortion rights.

By the numbers: Overall, two in three U.S. Catholics believe Biden should be allowed to take Communion despite his stance on abortion, according to polling by Pew Research Center.

Texas House probes school library books dealing with race and sexuality

Photo: Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, chair of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating, announced Wednesday that he's initiating a probe into schools' library books, according to a letter sent to the state's education agency and other superintendents.

Why it matters: The probe focuses on books that discuss race, sexuality or "make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex," Krause wrote in the letter.