- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2019

A big political loss at home could end up weakening Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abroad, as he heads into a potential high-stakes meeting with President Trump and other world leaders at this week’s Group of 20 summit in Japan.

In one of the most embarrassing setbacks of his nearly two decades in power, Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party on Sunday lost to an opposition rival in the drawn-out, fiercely contested race for mayor of Istanbul — a job Mr. Erdogan once held in a city that remains critical to his own political base.

Government backers and opponents were still weighing the aftershocks of Sunday’s vote, at a time when Mr. Erdogan faces critical foreign policy challenges with Washington and with its neighbors in the Middle East.

“Erdogan will go into that meeting [with Mr. Trump], if not weakened, certainly preoccupied by what happened in the elections,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Twice in less than three months, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate Mr. Erdogan backed for mayor lost in Istanbul, an engine of the Turkish economy which also is home to roughly a fifth of the country’s total population.

“In many ways, the Turkish public treated this election not just as a competition for mayorship of Istanbul, but more as a referendum on Erdogan and his transgressions against Turkish democracy,” said Foundation for Defense of Democracies research analyst Merve Tahiroglu.

Ms. Tahiroglu also said the result will weaken Mr. Erdogan on the international stage, blunting the president’s ambitions to play a larger role in the Middle East and Central Asia. Ankara’s determination to purchase the Russian S-400 missile system — in the face of strong opposition from the Trump administration and fellow NATO powers — also could take a hit given the returns from Istanbul.

Mr. Trump is also reportedly weighing sanctions against Turkey, including a ban on Turkish participation in the production of the advanced F-35 jet fighter, if the Russian deal goes through.

The loss will also test Mr. Erdogan’s tolerance of political opposition, at a time when critics say his government has become increasingly authoritarian and sensitive to press criticism. Despite the stinging loss, Mr. Erdogan and his party accepted Sunday’s result and congratulated the opposition party candidate on Twitter on Sunday night shortly after the election was called.

“The national will has been manifested once again today,” Mr. Erdogan tweeted. “I congratulate Ekrem Imamoglu who won the election, according to informal results.”

A group of election monitors from the Council of Europe praised Sunday’s vote, saying the election was held “competently and in compliance with the applicable rules,” The Associated Press reported.

Ms. Tahiroglu said that the opposition victory could have major implications for the shape of domestic Turkish politics, with much depending on what happens in the coming days and weeks.

Mr. Erdogan reportedly exclaimed “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey, whoever loses Istanbul, loses Turkey,” repeatedly during the election campaign.

During a Sunday night news conference after the election results, Mr. Imamoglu called on Mr. Erdogan to work with him after the 16 million residents of Istanbul “refreshed our belief in democracy and confidence in justice.”

“I am ready to work with you in harmony,” Mr. Imamoglu said. “I put myself up for that, and I announce this in front of all Istanbul people.”

Human rights groups and democracy activists expressed alarm when election officials canceled the results of the original election in Istanbul on March 31, which gave a narrow victory to Mr. Imamoglu, fearing the vote was annulled because of pressure from the ruling party. But Mr. Imamoglu only increased his victory margin in Sunday’s do-over, winning nearly 55% of the vote.

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