Istanbul Municipality Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu speaks at the 19 May Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day celebrations held at the Maltepe Event Area on May 19, 2023 on Istanbul, Turkey. 

Hakan Akgun | Getty Images

Turkey’s opposition won a stunning victory across several major cities in the country’s local elections Sunday, dealing a severe blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party and handing it its largest defeat in more than two decades.

“Those who do not understand the nation’s message will eventually lose,” Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu told thousands of supporters after vote counts revealed that his center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) had won the megacity of Istanbul by more than 1 million votes, Reuters reported.

“Tonight, 16 million Istanbul citizens sent a message to both our rivals and the president,” he said.

Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party, abbreviated locally as AKP, dominates the country at the national level.

In a speech Sunday night, Erdogan admitted his party had “lost altitude” and would work to rectify its errors.

“We will correct our mistakes and redress our shortcomings,” he said from the balcony of the presidential palace. Erdogan, 70, has governed Turkey since 2003.

The sweeping opposition win municipal elections across major Turkish cities like Istanbul, Izmir, and the capital Ankara could set the country in a new direction. Erdogan himself rose to prominence as Istanbul mayor in the 1990s before later going on to win the presidency; now, analysts are speculating that Imamoglu’s win in Istanbul could make him a front-runner for the Turkish presidency in 2028.

Erdogan himself once said that whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey. Imamoglu, a 52-year-old former businessman, has been Istanbul’s mayor since 2019. He attempted to run for president in Turkey’s 2023 general election, but was banned by Erdogan’s government from running, in a move CHP supporters say was purely political. In those elections, Erdogan’s party won big, leaving AKP on top at the national level.

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