March 31 polls seen as test for Turkish leader and AK Party amid economic downturn triggered by 2018 currency crisis.
Istanbul, Turkey – Turkey‘s main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate is leading in the mayoral race in Istanbul, the country’s largest city and economic centre, over the nominee of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the head of election board said on Monday.
Speaking to reporters in the capital Ankara on the results of Sunday’s local elections, High Election Board Chairman Sadi Guven said CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu is leading with 4,159,650 votes over AK Party’s Binali Yildirim with 4,131,761.
Guven added: “So far results coming from 31,102 ballot boxes have been defined in our system, count of 84 ballot box results have not been completed because of objections.”
Meanwhile, state-run Anadolu Agency has started posting election data at noon on Monday after hours of break. Anadolu’s data shows Imamoglu leads in the Istanbul mayoral race with 48.8 percent of the votes as Yildirim stands at 48.5 percent, with 100 percent of the votes counted.
Yildirim claimed early on Monday that he had won the race by around 4,000 votes, while Imamoglu said he grabbed the mayorship with about 28,000 votes over Yildirim.
Later on Monday, Yildirim accepted that he was 25,000 votes behind Imamoglu, but said that his party had objections to the results over invalid votes.
“There are 31,136 ballot boxes [in Istanbul]. If there is one invalid vote in each ballot box, it makes 31,136 votes in total, which is more than the difference [between the two sides],” he said, adding that there are some 315,500 invalid votes in the polls.
On Monday, Sezgin Tanrikulu, a senior CHP MP from Istanbul, said that his party expected the board to declare victory later in the day.
“We have won the election in Istanbul with around 28,000 votes. For legal reasons, the board is waiting for the objection period to be over to declare our win,” Tanrikulu, who is also a lawyer, told Al Jazeera.
“There have been complaints about certain ballot boxes. Legally, the party objecting should show a valid reason in doing so over each particular ballot box. Therefore, the number of boxes votes will be recounted in is limited,” he also said.
“The government should respect the results.”
The legal objection period to the board is set to end at 3pm (12:00 GMT) on Tuesday.
If the AK Party officially loses in Istanbul, it means that the three largest provinces of Turkey will have mayors from the main opposition party, according to preliminary results.
In Ankara, unofficial results showed that CHP candidate Mansur Yavas had garnered 50.9 percent, with 99 percent of the votes counted. He was followed by Mehmet Ozhaseki, the AK Party nominee, in the capital, with 47.2 percent.
In the third-largest city, Izmir, the Nation Alliance candidate, Mustafa Tunc Soyer, was leading with 58 percent votes. Nihat Zeybekci, the candidate for Erdogan’s bloc, had 38.5 percent.
The polls posed a major challenge for Erdogan, given a backdrop of high inflation and rising unemployment sparked by a major currency crisis last year.
Speaking at a news conference in Istanbul, Erdogan on Sunday acknowledged that his party had lost control in a number of cities and pledged that he would focus on carrying out economic reforms.
Erdogan, who was elected last year as the country’s first executive president, said the next polls would be held in June 2023, adding that Turkey would carefully implement a “strong economic programme” without compromising on free-market rules.
Murat Yetkin, a Turkish political analyst, told Al Jazeera that if “the Erdogan-led AK Party-MHP alliance loses Istanbul [along with Ankara] as well, that means loss of control over five major cities in Turkey”.
“Even if Istanbul, with 11 million voters, is won with a few thousand votes, it will be perceived as a major loss,” he said.
“The results also show that the executive presidential system, which was designed to avoid coalitions, has led to a de facto coalition since the AK Party cannot maintain [a] majority without its symbiotic partnership with MHP.”
Ozgur Dilber, a CHP volunteer, said the results showed that the AK Party’s popularity was waning – even if Erdogan’s bloc won in Istanbul.
“To me, the results are proof that the number of voters who want change is increasing,” he told Al Jazeera outside the party’s election monitoring office late on Sunday.
Earlier this month, official statistics showed that in the last two quarters of 2018, the Turkish economy slipped into its first recession in a decade, as inflation and interest rates soared due to the currency meltdown.
In February, inflation stood at just under 20 percent, while the Central Bank’s main interest rate is currently 24 percent.
In the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, the People’s Alliance sought to link the local polls to internal and external risks threatening the country’s security.
Erdogan has often blamed foreign powers and “speculators” for the currency fluctuations and other economic woes faced by Turkey – a message he repeated this week.
For its part, the main opposition alliance has focused its campaign on the economic situation and its effect on citizens.
It also used Turkish flags in their campaigns, rather than party banners, in an apparent bid to attract voters from different backgrounds.
Arzu Efeoglu contributed to this story from Istanbul
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