(Bloomberg) -- President Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows better than anyone that Turkish cities are the battlegrounds where political fortunes are made and lost.
In less than a decade, Erdogan went from Istanbul mayor to become the country’s most dominant leader in over 50 years. Now the opposition has pried control of Turkey’s biggest cities from the president’s alliance, Erdogan will have a harder time catering to the needs of his electoral base, threatening the foundation of his 16-year rule.
Erdogan clings to a narrow lead over his rivals after his AK Party managed to come first nationwide in Sunday’s municipal ballot. With no elections scheduled for more than four years, however, the next period will be a test of just how precarious his position has become after losing cities that are home to at least half of Turkey’s population of 82 million.
A major risk is that sway over cities will give the opposition ample time to build bridges across the polarized system fashioned by Erdogan, who has successfully sidelined rivals by portraying them as enemies of the core values held by his conservative base.
“Mayors won’t transform their cities but they will change the way Erdogan supporters view opposition parties, boosting their chances in the next electoral race,” said Mert Yildiz, founder of political advisory Foresight in Istanbul. “It will also make it more difficult for Erdogan to use municipal resources to maintain a social safety net for his base.”
Scaling the Ranks
Erdogan became Istanbul’s mayor in 1994 after a campaign he fought as the underdog running for Turkey’s main Islamist party, then only a small opposition group. But his party’s grip on power grew stronger thanks to Erdogan’s success in delivering improved roads, cleaner water and a support system for the poor.
On Sunday, Turkey’s biggest cities turned against Erdogan for the first time since that electoral victory in Istanbul catapulted him to the top of the country’s pecking order.
The capital, Ankara, and cities along the Mediterranean coast slipped from the grasp of Erdogan’s nationalist alliance in an election upended by a raging recession and a recent run on the currency. Erdogan’s ruling bloc largely stood its ground across much of the country’s rural interior.
After hours of competing victory declarations in commercial hub Istanbul, the election board said the opposition candidate had inched ahead in official counting. Erdogan has yet to concede, although his ally in Turkey’s largest city, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, acknowledged that he trails by 25,000 votes in the race.
“The alliance losing control over the big cities constitutes a clear warning signal that people are not satisfied with the current economic policy of the regime,” Nora Neuteboom, an economist at ABN Amro Bank NV in Amsterdam, said in an email. “The current government is likely to have limited appetite for reforms, and may instead focus more on quick fixes, such as flooding the economy with more cheap credit.”
The Turkish lira switched between losses and gains on Monday before depreciating 1.6 percent against the dollar at 12:05 p.m. in Istanbul on Tuesday. Before the election, authorities had been preventing foreign banks from accessing lira, making it virtually impossible for them to short the currency.
Erdogan understood what was at stake even though his name wasn’t on the ballot. In the run-up to the vote, the president held more than 100 campaign rallies, sometimes speaking as many as eight times a day.
Erdogan’s AK Party-led alliance captured 51.6 percent of the national vote, with 99 percent of the ballots counted, state-run Anadolu Agency reported. The opposing camp led by the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, had 37.6 percent, while the pro-Kurdish HDP won 4.2 percent after sitting out the races beyond its stronghold in eastern Turkey.
Most of the municipalities CHP won from the ruling party or its nationalist partner MHP are those where unemployment is running in double digits, official data show. Besides Ankara, Istanbul and the southern province of Antalya, that also includes conservative strongholds such as Kirsehir and Bolu. CHP also won in Adana and Mersin, municipalities with an average jobless rate of 11.4 percent.
On Monday, the greatest uncertainty remained over the fight for the mayor’s office in Istanbul. Opposition CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu took a narrow lead with 48.8 percent of the vote, according to the High Election Board. AKP’s Yildirim was trailing with 48.5 percent.
“The election board will decide the winner,” Yildirim said in Istanbul. “We know how to congratulate our opponents but the process is not finished yet.”
(Updates with unemployment data under ‘His Election’ subheadline.)
--With assistance from Taylan Bilgic and Ugur Yilmaz.
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