Turkey’s main opposition party appeared set to retain its control over key cities in Sunday’s local elections, preliminary results showed, in a major upset to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had set his sights on retaking control of those urban areas.

With some 20% of the votes counted, incumbent mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, was leading in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and economic hub — according to state broadcaster TRT. Mayor Mansur Yavas, the mayor of the capital Ankara, also appeared poised to retain his seat with a comfortable majority, the results indicated.

The CHP appeared to be leading in 35 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, according to the preliminary results reported by TRT.

The vote was seen as barometer of President Erdogan’s popularity as he sought to win back control of key urban areas he lost to the opposition in elections five years ago. The CHP’s victory in Ankara and Istanbul in 2019, had shattered Mr. Erdogan’s aura of invincibility.

The main battleground for the 70-year-old Turkish president was Istanbul, a city of 16 million people where he was born and raised and where he began his political career as mayor in 1994.

A strong showing for Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party, or AKP, would likely harden his resolve to usher in a new constitution — one that would reflect his conservative values and allow him to rule beyond 2028 when his current term ends, analysts say.

For the opposition — divided and demoralized after a defeat in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections — keeping Istanbul and Ankara would be a major boost and help remobilize supporters.

Some 61 million people, including more than a million first-time voters, were eligible to cast ballots for all metropolitan municipalities, town and district mayorships as well as neighborhood administrations.

Turnout is traditionally high in Turkey, but this time the vote comes against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis. Observers said disillusioned opposition supporters could opt to stay home, doubting that the election will change things. Governing party supporters, meanwhile, could also choose not to go to the polls in protest at the economic downturn that has left many struggling to pay for food, utilities and rent.

Some 594,000 security personnel were on duty across the country to ensure the vote goes smoothly. Nevertheless, one person was killed and eleven others were hurt in the city of Diyarbakir where a dispute over the election of a neighborhood administrator turned violent, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. At least six people were also injured in fighting that erupted in the nearby province of Sanliurfa.

“According to the data we have obtained, it seems our citizens’ trust in us, their faith in us has paid off,” Mr. Imamoglu said of the early results.

Polls had pointed to a close race between Istanbul’s incumbent mayor, Mr. Imamoglu, and the AKP’s candidate Murat Kurum, a former urbanization and environment minister.

Mr. Imamoglu — a popular figure touted as a possible future challenger to President Erdogan — ran without the support of some of the parties that helped him to victory in 2019.

Both the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party and the nationalist IYI Party fielded their own candidates in the race.

A six-party opposition alliance led by CHP disintegrated after it failed to oust President Erdogan in last year’s election, unable to capitalize on the economic crisis and the government’s initially poor response to last year’s devastating earthquake that killed more than 53,000 people.

Hamish Kinnear, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, said that if Mr. Imamoglu hangs on in Istanbul, “he will be well placed to unify the fractious opposition and launch a bid for the presidency in 2028.”

However, losing Istanbul would deal a significant blow to both Mr. Imamoglu and the opposition, Mr. Kinnear said.

Meanwhile, a new religious-conservative party, the New Welfare Party, or YRP, is appealing to voters who have been disillusioned with President Erdogan’s handling of the economy and was expected to draw some votes away from his candidates.

In Turkey’s mainly Kurdish-populated southeast, the DEM Party was poised to win many of the municipalities but it’s unclear whether it would be allowed to retain them. In previous years, Erdogan’s government removed elected pro-Kurdish mayors from office for alleged links to Kurdish militants and replaced them with state-appointed trustees.

Mr. Erdogan, who has presided over Turkey for more than two decades — as prime minister since 2003 and president since 2014 — has been advocating a new constitution that would put family values at the forefront. He does not have sufficient votes to enact a new constitution now, but a strong showing could allow him to woo some conservative, nationalist or Islamic legislators from the opposition camp for a needed two-thirds majority.

Berk Esen, an associate professor of political sciences at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, said Mr. Erdogan is pushing for a new constitution “more conservative than the current version” to expand and define his legacy.

This is where the local elections come in.

“This would be a big opportunity for Erdogan to leave his political imprint,” Mr. Esen said.


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