Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party was on course to lose control of Ankara, the Turkish capital, early results from local elections suggested, in a painful blow to the president.
The opposition mayoral candidate, Mansur Yavas, was in the lead in Turkey’s second-biggest city with two-thirds of the votes counted, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency, as voters punished Mr Erdogan for the contraction in growth, runaway food prices and rising unemployment that have followed last year’s currency crisis.
The preliminary results put Mr Yavas, a unity candidate fielded by an opposition alliance, on 49.8 per cent, 2.1 points ahead of his ruling party rival, Mehmet Ozhaseki.
Early results suggested that Mr Erdogan would be saved from the double blow of losing Istanbul as well as Ankara. Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister who ran as the mayoral candidate for the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), was ahead by 2.2 percentage points in Turkey’s largest city with two-thirds of the votes counted.
But Ekrem Imamoglu, Mr Yildirim’s opposition challenger, said his party’s own tally put him in the lead, and accused the state-run Anadolu agency of publishing misleading results. “Manipulation is now in question,” Mr Imamoglu said during a televised press conference. “I am calling on electoral officials to please control the process . . . and check the Istanbul statistics.”
He added: “I will not be unfair, but I will not be treated unjustly.”
Ibrahim Uslu, the head of the Anar polling agency, said that the race in Turkey’s largest city would be close until the end. “It looks like it will go to a photo finish,” he told the country’s Fox News Channel.
Early results put the opposition on course to seize control of a string of provinces along Turkey’s southern coast from the AKP, including the tourism hub of Antalya, the industrial city of Adana and the port city of Mersin.
Another winner of the night appeared to be the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement party (MHP), which has been in an informal alliance with Mr Erdogan since 2016. Thanks to an election pact, the party was set to increase the number of provinces under its control from eight to 12.
Although Mr Erdogan was not on the ballot paper in any of Turkey’s 81 provinces, he fought the campaign as if it were a general election, touring the country and holding several rallies a day.
Ruling party officials said that he feared defeat in a large urban centre could put wind in the sails of the opposition and raise questions over his legitimacy.
The AKP trumpeted its surprise victory in Sirnak, a Kurdish majority province on the border with Syria and Iraq that the ruling party won from the leftist Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP). The HDP, which saw dozens of its officials arrested during the campaign on the charge of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), accused the state of using its resources to carry out a “coup” in the province.
Mr Erdogan will also be comforted by the fact that his ruling alliance won more than 50 per cent of the national vote, according to early results, with the AKP still the largest party in the country by some length.
But the apparent loss of Ankara and a string of other provinces is a symbolic blow to the authority of Mr Erdogan, who rose to national prominence after a stint as mayor of Istanbul.
Losing big urban centres also means ceding control of the large network of patronage that comes with them, including lucrative contracts and jobs.
The result in the Turkish capital puts Mr Yavas on a collision course with Mr Erdogan. During the election campaign, the Turkish president accused the former lawyer of tax evasion and forgery — claims that he dismissed as a “smear campaign”.
Mr Erdogan warned on the campaign trail that “even if” Mr Yavas were able to enter the election, he and the Ankara electorate would “pay a heavy price” for the allegations.
Investors were watching Sunday’s results closely after a torrid time for Turkey’s financial markets in the final week before polling.
They have called for the government to take urgent steps to restore confidence and tackle the country’s economic woes.