Erdogan Makes a Stand as Ballot Puts Biggest Cities in Play

(Bloomberg) -- Less than a year after winning a new mandate with sweeping powers, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party are locked in tight races in some of Turkey’s biggest cities in local elections on Sunday, which left two people dead.

On the defensive in recent weeks as the economy slipped into recession and the lira lurched from one crisis to another, Erdogan has lashed out at enemies at home and abroad, warning bankers of a “heavy price” to pay for feeding the currency chaos. In the campaign’s closing days, Turkey’s longest-serving leader urged the nation of 82 million to rally behind his AK Party rather than teach it a “lesson.”

Erdogan Makes a Stand as Ballot Puts Biggest Cities in Play

At stake is control over hundreds of mayoral districts and local councils across Turkey’s 81 provinces, which stretch from its borders with Greece to Syria. Against the backdrop of a worsening economic downturn, the opposition is working together in a rare joint effort to deliver a rebuke to Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted movement.

“A meaningful loss of votes for the AKP would certainly worry Erdogan as it would undermine his aura of invincibility,” said Teneo Intelligence’s co-president, Wolfango Piccoli. “Losing the control of one or more large cities would constitute a blow to Erdogan’s pride and could complicate the AKP’s ability to cater at the local level for its hardcore base of voters.”

The second-largest opposition party in parliament, the pro-Kurdish HDP, opted to sit out significant municipal races beyond its stronghold in the southeast. Instead, it’s supporting candidates from an opposition bloc led by the larger CHP.

As a result, the quarter-century-long hold on the country’s capital Ankara and business hub Istanbul by Erdogan’s party and its predecessors is under threat.

Stiff competition between the candidates has created a tense atmosphere across the country and violence at a polling station in the southeastern Malatya province left two people dead, including a polling station volunteer and an observer of a small opposition party, Saadet, the state-run Anadolu Agency said. Pro-Islamic Saadet leader Temel Karamollaoglu blamed a relative of the ruling AK Party candidate in the town of Puturge for the killings in a message on Twitter. On the eve of the elections, the government relayed indictments against CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as well as pro-Kurdish HDP co-chairs Pervin Buldan and Sezai Temelli to parliament on Saturday to seek the body’s approval for their prosecution on various charges.

Erdogan won 52 percent of the vote in presidential elections in June. The AK Party and its nationalist ally MHP garnered a combined share of 53 percent of the parliamentary vote.

Erdogan Makes a Stand as Ballot Puts Biggest Cities in Play

Where the economy and jobs are uppermost in voters’ minds, there will be questions over Erdogan’s stewardship of the government. Just in recent days, authorities risked the nation’s market credibility by orchestrating a liquidity crunch to stop the lira sliding further.

It’s a dangerous time to alienate investors because Turkey is already facing the threat of U.S. sanctions unless it drops a planned purchase of a defense system from Russia. Still, the president has wanted none of the blame for the upheaval around the lira, saying the fluctuations in the exchange rate are due to “operations by the U.S. and the West to corner Turkey.”

As in past elections, Erdogan has appealed to nationalist sentiment with warnings that separatist aspirations among Kurds threaten Turkey’s integrity and suggested the government could remove any municipal official involved in a criminal act or linked to Kurdish militants even if they are elected.

“It’s the time to firmly come together like the fingers of both hands,” Erdogan told a rally in the central Anatolian city of Konya.

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