Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan suffered a severe setback on Sunday as his ruling AK Party was set to lose control of the capital Ankara for the first time in a local election and he appeared to concede defeat in the country's largest city, Istanbul.
Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics since coming to power 16 years ago and ruled his country with an ever tighter grip, campaigned relentlessly for two months ahead of Sunday's vote, which he described as a "matter of survival" for Turkey. Despite the opposition gains, the leader declared victory.
But the president's daily rallies and near constant media coverage narrowly failed to win over the country's two main cities, as Turkey's economic downturn weighed heavily on voters.
"The people have voted in favor of democracy, they have chosen democracy," opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said, declaring that candidates for his secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) won in Ankara, Istanbul and the Aegean city of Izmir.
Defeat for Erdogan's Islamist-rooted party in Ankara was a significant blow for the president. Losing Istanbul, where he launched his political career and served as mayor in the 1990s, would be an even greater symbolic shock and a broader sign of dwindling support.
Behlul Ozkan, an associate professor at Marmara University, said Erdogan's loss of ground in Ankara and Istanbul indicated that his socially conservative and construction-driven policies no longer resonated in the cosmopolitan cities. "Political Islam's quarter-century old hegemony in Turkey's two largest cities is over," he said. "The basic problem is that Erdogan is not able to get votes from middle-income earners who believe that the economy, education and urban administration are not run well."
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In Istanbul,CHP's candidate is ahead in the vote count against the candidate of Erdogan's AK Party (AKP), the head of the country's High Election Board said on Monday.
Sadi Guven told reporters that the CHP's Imamoglu had 4,159,650 votes and the AKP's Binali Yildirim had 4,131,761 votes. He did not specify which percentage of votes had been counted.
With 99.8 percent of ballot boxes opened in Ankara, CHP mayoral candidate Mansur Yavas had secured 50.9 percent, giving him a 3.8-percentage-point lead over his AKP rival. State-owned Anadolu Agency said the AKP would appeal in some districts of the capital.
In a speech to supporters in Ankara, Erdogan appeared to accept AKP defeat in Istanbul, although he maintained that most neighbourhoods in the city were held by his party. "Even if our people gave away the mayorship, they gave the districts to the AK Party," he said.
The party would appeal results wherever needed, he added.
"Turning a page"
Erdogan pledged that Turkey would now focus on its troubled economy in the run-up to national elections in 2023. "We have a long period ahead where we will carry out economic reforms without compromising on the rules of the free-market economy," he told reporters.
Turkey's most prominent leader since the founder of the Turkish republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan's support has been based on strong economic growth and backing from a core constituency of pious, conservative Muslim Turks.
A consummate campaigner, he has been the country's most popular - although divisive - modern politician, tightening his hold on power in elections last year that ushered in an executive presidency, approved in a bitterly fought 2017 referendum.
But a currency crisis after last year's election dragged the lira down by 30 percent and tipped the economy towards recession. With inflation close to 20 percent and unemployment rising, some voters appeared ready to punish the president.
"Today's elections are as historic as that of 1994," prominent journalist Rusen Cakir tweeted, referring to the year Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul. "It is a declaration that a page that was opened 25 years ago is being turned."
As authorities again scrambled to shore up the lira over the past week, Erdogan cast the country's economic woes as resulting from attacks by the West, saying Turkey would overcome its troubles and adding he was "the boss" of the economy.
Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo political risk advisers, said the AK Party had lost seven of the country's 12 main cities, even without taking Istanbul into account.
"It's a bad night for the AK Party," he said. "They have done very poorly in all the economic powerhouses of country. For a party which portrays itself as pro-business, it's a huge issue."
The lira traded at 5.61 to the dollar after initial results came in, compared with 5.55 at Friday's close and 5.65 in U.S. trading hours late on Friday.
Violence mars voting
The election was marred by violence, with two people killed in Malatya province, three others in the southern province of Gaziantep, Scores of injuries, Turkey's electoral board said.
With more than 57 million people eligible to vote, Andrew Dawson, heading the Council of Europe's election observation mission, said Monday his monitors were "not fully convinced that Turkey currently has the free and fair electoral environment which is necessary for genuinely democratic elections in line with European values and principles." He commended the Turkish public for the high turnout rate of 84 percent and called it a "sign of healthy democratic interest."
In mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey, residents celebrated as the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) won back municipalities that authorities had taken over two years ago, accusing the HDP of terrorist links. The HDP denies links to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers' Party.
"They robbed us of our will and we overturned this," Diyarbakir resident Abdullah Elmas said.
Associated Press contributed to this report.