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Erdogan still has hand to play after election bruising

By AFP - Apr 02,2024 - Last updated at Apr 02,2024

Supporters of Justice and Development (AK) Party cheer as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech after the Turkish local Municipal elections, at AK Party headquarters in Ankara on Monday (AFP photo)

ISTANBUL — Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opponents may have celebrated on Sunday’s local election hammering for the Turkish president as if they’d unseated him, but the “reis” (chief) still has at least four years of power ahead.

It was a rare knockback for 70-year-old Erdogan, in power for 21 years and confirmed in the post last May with over 52 per cent of the vote — albeit after fighting his first-ever run-off.

The president personally poured energy into the municipal election campaign in the ultimately vain hope of re-taking Istanbul, leaving voters to identify his party’s failures with Erdogan himself.

The Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) controls none of Turkey’s major cities and has even lost provinces and municipalities once thought impregnable to the secular, centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Nevertheless, “as a seasoned politician, [Erdogan] will adjust”, said Oxford University political scientist Dimitar Bechev, noting that “co-existence with mayors is already tried and tested”.

Some observers had prematurely predicted his political exit when AKP lost the Istanbul and Ankara mayorships in 2019.

Erdogan himself said on Sunday evening that “we will work with the mayors who have won” and called on his own camp to engage in “self-criticism”.

The president’s calm speech to a crowd of shaken supporters surprised observers, as he straightforwardly accepted the opposition surge, calling it a “turning point” for the AKP.

He later swatted aside speculation that he could call early elections to cling on to his presidential mandate for a little longer.

“Turkey has more than four years’ worth of treasure ahead of it. We cannot waste this period with discussions that will waste the time of the nation and the country,” Erdogan said.

‘Bet on nationalism’

With 265 seats, AKP remains by far the strongest force in the 598-seat parliament, and its alliance with far-right party MHP brings its seats in parliament to 314.

There are limits to the majority’s power: it lacks the numbers to revise the constitution to allow Erdogan to stand for president again in 2028.

Neither would there be much interest in Erdogan’s parliamentary allies dissolving the chamber for fresh elections as the leader “has lost the ability to attract voters from outside his ranks”, said Ahmet Insel, a Turkish political scientist living in exile. For now, Erdogan is likely to play the international statesman, he predicted, with an upcoming visit to Joe Biden’s White House on May 9.

“He’ll be able to keep things afloat until 2028, but beyond that it’s compromised... there’ll probably be a transfer of power” to the opposition, said Bayram Balci of Paris’ Sciences Po university, adding that “without Erdogan, there’s not much to the AKP”.

On the other hand, in a volatile region between Europe and the Middle East, “there’s a lot that could happen with Syria, Iraq or Russia” over the coming four years, “including on the internal security front”.

Erdogan was already talking tough late Sunday, warning that he “will not allow a ‘Terroristan’ on (Turkey’s) southern borders,” Insel pointed out.

The president may “bet on nationalism and the vital battle against terrorism, which the CHP will find hard to oppose”, he added.

Turkish warplanes were on Monday bombing positions of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, a group branded as terrorists by Ankara, Turkey’s western allies and now Baghdad.

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