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Turkey's main opposition party deals a significant blow to president's party

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's grip on power may be slipping. Candidates from Erdogan's AK party lost control of major cities in local elections, including in the country's largest city, Istanbul, and its capital, Ankara. And these defeats have been to AK's main opposition, the Republican People's Party. Erdogan has dominated and shaped Turkish politics for over 2 decades in power, and he called the losses a turning point, so what could this all mean for Turkey? For more on this, we're joined by Soner Cagaptay. He's the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. So he just won a presidential election last year. What do you think is behind the decline of his standing with voters in this time since?

SONER CAGAPTAY: I would say things have changed dramatically. Erdogan promised to make an economic comeback. The economy in Turkey has not been doing well. He delivered - Erdogan, that is - dramatic growth for about 15 years, built a base of adoring supporters who are grateful to him, and now they're angry at him. And I think as a result, some voters abstained, and that, of course, resulted in a rout for the opposition.

MARTÍNEZ: So building a base for 15 years can be evaporated that quickly in Turkey?

CAGAPTAY: In some ways, yes. So Erdogan has a club that includes supporters who are grateful to him because he has done so well economically, lifted them out of poverty, but also a club that is attracted to his conservative, nativist, populist messaging. And I think what we're seeing is not a complete collapse of this Erdogan club. Voters who are upset with the economy, including inflation that at one point neared 80%, are not abandoning him and his right-wing party and crossing the aisle to the left. So Erdogan now, I think, needs to restore economic growth if he wants to stave off this challenge coming from Istanbul mayor, who's become a rock star because he has defeated Erdogan, who's known to be the invincible politician in the Turkish context.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Tell us more about him.

CAGAPTAY: Yeah. So Ekrem Imamoglu is a fascinating character. He is Istanbul's mayor. It's the job Erdogan held in 1990s, a position that made Erdogan a rock star. In Turkey, the saying is that if you control Istanbul, then you control Turkey. Of course, it's a big city, has - accounts for 40% of Turkey's GDP. It's bigger than most European countries demographically and economically. So if you control Istanbul, you also control its revenues and rent that it generates. And I think the victory has poised him to be Erdogan's challenger in the country's next presidential elections in 2028.

MARTÍNEZ: So that's exactly what I was about to ask you. Like, does he have to worry about him now?

CAGAPTAY: Not so soon. You know, Erdogan can make a comeback. I followed his trajectory and written his biography, and I know that he is a survivor. So it's hard to bet against him, and he's got four years to come back. So the first thing is he needs to put the economy back into shape. Now, Turkey is an advanced economy, but it's a resource-poor one, so it needs financial inflows to start growing again and stabilize its macroeconomic indicators. That's step number one. Step number two, he's probably going to try to bring this hard Islamist party into his big tent because voters are kind of tired of his party that has been in power for 20 years, is identified with rot and corruption. And that's why they still love Erdogan, but they don't want to vote for his AK party anymore. And they're switching to this hard Islamist party and others. And I think he's going to try to bring this other party in as the new face of the Erdogan coalition, and that party is hard Islamist. And in the Turkish context, it has misogynistic and anti-gay agenda. It's anti-vaccine. So I can see President Erdogan, down the road, trying to legislate some constitutional amendments to pander to the base of this party, to bring in a new constitution that would, of course, give him also some new terms in office.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Soner Cagaptay. Thank you very much.

CAGAPTAY: Thank you.

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