Istanbul mayoral race is personal for Turkey’s Erdoğan - analysis

Losing control of Turkey’s financial powerhouse has become a personal issue for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who sees Istanbul as the crown jewel of Turkish politics, CNN said on Saturday.

Erdoğan’s rise to power started when he was elected as Istanbul’s mayor in 1994. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its predecessors ruled Istanbul for 25 years without much challenge from the opposition, until Ekrem İmamoğlu won the local polls on March 31 defeating the AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım.

The election council annulled the Istanbul vote, after the AKP appealed the results over electoral irregularities, and rescheduled a rerun on June 23. According to the Turkish pollster Konda, İmamoğlu is leading the race with almost 9 percentage points. 

The AKP on March 31 lost elections in five of Turkey’s six most populous provinces, but, according to CNN, the AKP's defeat in Istanbul was especially hard to swallow for Erdoğan.

“Perhaps no one understands the significance of Turkey's largest city more than Erdoğan, 65, who used it as a launch pad for his career,” CNN said.

During his political career, Erdoğan has repeatedly said that whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey. 

“The president's birthplace has become a concentrated source of wealth and power for his party, oiling the rest of Turkey's political machine. Losing control of it means losing funds and resources that subsidise pro-government media, businesses, contractors and the AKP apparatus at large,” CNN said. 

“If the opposition defies the odds to defeat Erdoğan's party for a second time, its supporters will hail the victory as a turning point for a country that is sliding into autocracy. And even if the AKP reclaims Istanbul, experts say the re-vote has already exposed a chink in Erdoğan's armor,” CNN said.

Ahead of March polls, Erdoğan spoke at mass rallies across Turkey for election campaign, sidelining his party’s candidates. Following the elections, many analysts said that Erdoğan’s harsh rhetoric against the opposition was one of the reasons of AKP’s defeat in large cities. 

The ruling party changed its election strategy for the Istanbul rerun and focused more on its mayoral candidate Yıldırım until this week. Erdoğan, who stayed away from the election campaign, returned to the stage with his usual style.

"Erdoğan has been told by a number of political advisers, as well as the Yıldırım campaign, that his overwhelming presence in the city is actually a turn-off for some voters ... those that feel AKP is on the wrong path, that it's gotten too authoritarian, and that the government is responsible for the economic downturn,” Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a Turkey expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN.

But, AKP supporters seem to disagree with the analyst. "For our president, it's his campaign,” CNN quoted Nurettin Adıyol, an AKP volunteer, as saying. "In everywhere that he is present, we will win the election.”