Istanbul elections: what does 'biggest ever loss' mean for President Erdogan?

The ruling party's loss of Turkey's economic heartland, even after demanding a rerun, could mark a turning point in Turkish politics

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Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suffered the most significant loss of his political career on Sunday when his party lost a rerun of Istanbul's mayoral election.

Opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu won a decisive victory with 54 per cent of the vote, defeating the ruling party's candidate, Binali Yildirim, in what was touted as a "fight for democracy".

Although the contest was a local mayoral election, the result was important. Mr Imamoglu already won a narrow victory in March, but that result was annulled after Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) objected to the result, claiming there had been electoral irregularities.

This second loss reveals a miscalculation by the AKP that could mark a turning point in Turkish politics.

Why is Istanbul so important to President Erdogan? 

Istanbul has emotional significance for Mr Erdogan as it is his home city and holds a degree of symbolism for him and his AKP. He began his political career as mayor of the megacity in 1994 and once said that "whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey". It is also Turkey's economic heartland, accounting for almost 30 per cent of the country's GDP, and plays an important role in his party's funding.

What does the loss mean for Mr Erdogan?

It is the biggest political upset of his 25-year electoral career. To compound matters, his party lost control over other major cities in March meaning the opposition coalition – which is led by the CHP – now has control of nine of Turkey's 10 biggest provinces until 2024. These areas account for almost 70 per cent of the country's GDP, meaning they have access to more funding, and the political shift will also embolden them.

Is it a sign that he is losing his grip on power? 

The shift in support can be seen as a rejection of the AKP and its divisive politics, which Turkey is fatigued by, Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe told The National. But Mr Erdogan is still Turkey's most popular political leader and is at the helm of a constitutional system that concentrates power at the top.

"That is not going to change in the near future," Mr Ulgen said.

"What the result shows however, is that the challenge posed by the opposition is now more effective and that the next presidential election [scheduled for 2023] will perhaps be more open."

What has changed in Turkey?

The antidote to the divisive AKP rhetoric that has dominated Turkish politics in recent years, in a part due to a busy electoral timetable, has been a coalition that has been able to aggregate some of Turkey's disparate electoral communities. This coalition is made up of the CHP, the main secular opposition, as well as the secular nationalist Iyi Party and backed by the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) – the supporters of which are not traditionally bedfellows. Yet the message is one of 'radical love', as Mr Imamoglu termed his election strategy.

"If they can consolidate this it would constitute a sound formula for the future towards more inclusive style of politics," Mr Ulgen said.