Erdoğan suffers blow as opponents poised to take Turkey's two biggest cities

(Updates with latest Istanbul poll figures)

Official results showed the main opposition candidate for mayor of Istanbul narrowly ahead in Turkey’s local elections as counting drew to a close on Monday, a result if that confirmed would mark the biggest electoral setback in the history of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Islamist party, which also lost control of the capital Ankara.

Erdoğan launched his political career by becoming mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city and financial hub, in 1994. Istanbul, a city of some 16 million people, represents nearly a third of Turkey's GDP. 

The president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dominated politics in Turkey since it came to power in 2002, a year after its founding. Though losing the municipalities of the country’s two biggest cities would not dent the power of Turkey’s president, it would erode the party’s national influence and may be a sign the tide is turning after 17 years of AKP rule.

State-run Anadolu news agency said on Monday main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu was ahead in the election for mayor of Istanbul with 4,159,650 votes over the AKP’s Binali Yıldırım 4,131,761, with almost all the ballot boxes counted.

Erdoğan campaigned hard for the election, holding rallies the length and breadth of the country, describing the polls for municipal mayors, city and district councils and village chiefs as a matter of national security and survival. Islamic parties linked to the president have controlled the Istanbul and Ankara mayoral seats for 25 years.

While the AKP and its far-right ally won overall, taking nearly 52 percent of the total vote, results showed a clear decline in the party’s support in Turkey's largest cities, which drive the economy. The AKP lost the Ankara mayoralty to the CHP on Sunday evening.

In Fındıklı, a district in Erdoğan's home province of Rize on the Black Sea, voters poured into the streets and chanted "Welcome Democracy" after the results showed a CHP victory.

"Never in my adult life have I seen Turkey’s opposition — fragmented, bitter and colossally self-obsessed — put on an election show of the kind I watched last night, especially in Istanbul and Ankara," tweeted Michael Sercan Daventry, a British-Turkish journalist who writes at

"A new dawn has not broken for Turkey this morning — but, to labour the metaphor, we may have seen the first lights," he said. 

The president gave a balcony speech in Ankara early on Monday morning in which he appeared to acknowledge the election setback. “Please do not be heartbroken with this result,” Erdoğan said. “We will see how they are going to administer.”

As of 10 a.m. Monday morning, the AKP had yet to concede the race for Istanbul mayor, while many other results remained uncertified. Anadolu Agency reported that nearly 1,400,000 votes across the country could be invalidated

"It ain’t over till it’s over," tweeted Burak Kadercan, associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S.' Naval War College. "As I keep chanting: whether AKP agrees to election results or not is more important than election results."

Turkey’s embattled lira dropped on news of the polls on fears the government would follow populist policies in order to regain support.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.