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Istanbul mayoral loss seen as wake-up call for Erdogan

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For decades, the cobbled streets in the shadow of Istanbul’s grand Fatih Mosque have been a bastion of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his religious conservative politics. But the Turkish president’s former fortress is gripped by a revolt.

The historic Fatih peninsula, named after the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople, fell to the secularist opposition in the recent rerun of a disputed Istanbul mayoral election. Its roads and parks are dotted with banners bearing a thank you message from Ekrem Imamoglu, the new social democrat mayor of Istanbul.

Nothing better underlines the scale of the miscalculation by Mr Erdogan, long seen as an unmatched political operator, than the loss of the district. “It’s like Texas voting Democrat,” said Can Selcuki, head of the consultancy Istanbul Economics Research. “It’s a wake-up call.”

Fatih is the kind of place where Mr Imamoglu’s staunchly secularist Republican People’s party (CHP) long struggled to make inroads. Its backstreets are dotted with Islamic bookstores, religious foundations and graffiti tributes to the toppled Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, who died this month. 

For the CHP, which used to support restrictions on Islamic dress and religious practices, it was never natural territory. But on Sunday, the district backed the CHP, handing Mr Imamoglu a wafer-thin majority of 300 votes. Analysts attribute the extraordinary turnround to a change in tactics by the CHP — and a series of stumbles by the once infallible Mr Erdogan, who has dominated Turkey’s political landscape for the past 17 years.

A recurring theme in Fatih is the injustice of stripping Mr Imamoglu of his narrow victory in the original March contest, forcing it to be rerun. Mr Erdogan’s claim of fraud rang hollow for many. “People took the side of the person who was in the right,” said Hatice, a 44-year-old graphic designer and a committed voter for Mr Erdogan’s AKP. 

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Metin Goktas, who runs a café, agreed. “Nothing was as important as the sense of injustice about running the election again.”

Mr Goktas, 28, is one of many to express fatigue with the ruling party’s harsh rhetoric and constant efforts to link the opposition to terrorists. “I think Recep Tayyip Erdogan has grown distant from the electorate,” he said. “He is always talking about terrorism, always otherising.” 

Emrah Suer, who backed the AKP in the first Istanbul mayoral election but did not vote on Sunday, is one of many Fatih residents to cite unhappiness over the economy, which has slumped after last year’s painful currency crisis that wiped 30 per cent off the value of the lira. He blamed the finance minister, Berat Albayrak, who is the son-in-law of the president. “If they put me there I would do a better job,” he said.

Concerns about runaway inflation and high unemployment have been compounded in Fatih by the thousands of Syrian refugees who have settled in the district, creating social friction.

The economic downturn, in particular, created a critical weakness for the AKP, which for much of its time in power has represented rising prosperity and growth. But analysts say that the party would not have lost control of Istanbul — and places such as Fatih — were it not for a change in tactics by the once-fractured and ineffectual opposition. 

In Istanbul, the CHP and several other opposition parties teamed up behind a unity candidate, making the contest a two-horse race between the country’s pro- and anti-Erdogan factions. Mr Imamoglu not only won the votes of classic CHP voters but also members of Turkey’s Kurdish minority and rightwing nationalists.

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At the same time, the CHP worked hard to choose a candidate who would appeal to a broad cross-section of people in Turkey’s biggest and most important city. 

Surveys and focus groups showed that voters in conservative areas were not interested in a CHP candidate who tried to outcompete the AKP on religiosity, said Ertan Aksoy, a CHP-linked pollster. “If he had gone to Fatih and said: ‘Who is a better Muslim, who is more pious, me or the AKP candidate?’ he would have lost,” Mr Aksoy said. So, in his relentlessly upbeat campaign, Mr Imamoglu promised to “embrace every segment” of society and focused on local issues. 

That approach helped to win over people such as Zeynep Yavuz, 34 a chic shop assistant in a peach headscarf. Born and raised in Fatih, she said the CHP had shaken off its tainted image among socially conservative families such as hers. “That’s behind us,” she said. “I gave my vote to Imamoglu and I don’t regret it.”

Reeling from defeat not just in Istanbul but also a string of other cities, Mr Erdogan has already taken one step to limit the powers of new opposition mayors, issuing a circular that deprives them of their ability to appoint officials to municipality-linked companies. Yet the views of some Fatih residents suggest such efforts could once again backfire.

Even AKP party voters say they want Mr Imamoglu to succeed. “We should work together,” said Ibrahim Baran, a 45-year-old corner shop owner who backed the ruling party. “I hope that he’s successful. If he’s won that many votes, he deserves it.”

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Via Financial Times

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