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ISTANBUL —Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suffered his worst electoral setback, with his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, losing control of the capital, Ankara, and seemingly set to lose Istanbul following this past Sunday's local elections.
In Istanbul, posters that were put up around the city early Monday celebrated the victory of AKP mayoral candidate Binali Yildirim; however, the candidate of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Ekrem Imamoglu, has the votes and is claiming the win in Istanbul, albeit with a thin margin of victory over Yildirim.
Sadi Guven, the head of Turkey's High Electoral Board (YSK), which administers the country's elections, confirmed Imamoglu had secured around 25,000 votes more than Yildirim, out of 9 million ballots cast.
Opposition parties have criticized Guven, an Erdogan appointee, for being too close to the AKP in previous voting controversies.
Yildirim is looking to Guven to overturn the latest result.
"Let me tell you what will happen next. Whoever is given the mandate by the YSK will take over as mayor," he said.
Yildirim says an excessive number of invalidated votes denied him victory, a charge dismissed by Imamoglu.
Istanbul's Uskudar district is home to Erdogan and a stronghold of his AKP. Yildirim's stance has support there. "Istanbul is won by Yildirim. With God's will, he will be confirmed," said an AKP supporter who declined to be named.
Other Yildirim supporters, however, said they were ready to admit defeat.
"They (AKP) are defeated because they couldn't hit their targets with some of their programs," said a logistics worker serving the security forces. "They (AKP) also lost because of the economic and political situation as well as unemployment," said the person, who wished to remain anonymous.
Turkey is in the grip of a recession, with unemployment approaching record numbers and inflation at nearly 20 percent. Food prices are rising by close to 30 percent.
The district neighboring Uskudar is Kadikoy, an electoral stronghold of the opposition CHP. Party banners there are celebrating the party's victory. Many people are already looking to a new future.
"Elections took place with much excitement, and I think the result was unexpected for the people," said Emir, an airline worker.
"It is an election that will be talked about by people for a long time to come," he added. "AKP won the polls for many years, but I think now a change has happened and I believe this change will be good for people."
Analysts say Istanbul traditionally provides the impetus for political change in Turkey.
"Results of Istanbul's local elections are so important for Turkish politics because Istanbul is the greatest city, traditionally politically, culturally and economically, of course," said communications professor Baris Doster of Istanbul's Marmara University.
"Istanbul changes the face of Turkish politics," Doster said.
Importance of Istanbul
In 1994, Erdogan rose from political obscurity to dominate Turkish politics after narrowly winning the Istanbul mayorship in a surprise victory as a member of a then-fringe Islamist party.
Doster says the opposition will likely seek to use Istanbul as a springboard to power.
"Istanbul changing hands with elections after a quarter of a century will bring excitement to the opposition and will have, from now on, a lasting impact in Turkish political life," he said.
Given the importance of Istanbul, the AKP appears not ready to give up control of the city, with party officials claiming voting irregularities.
In AKP strongholds like Uskudar, however, some are calling for reconciliation rather than confrontation.
"We are all brothers; this is not a war, whether its vote is for the prime minister or the municipal mayor," said one retiree. "I wish for our country just to live peacefully under one flag."
Analysts say the local elections were among the most politically divisive, with Erdogan claiming the country's future was at stake; however, in an address to supporters Sunday night, he took a more conciliatory approach by avoiding verbal attacks on the opposition and stressing the importance of putting country before party.
Some analysts interpreted the comments as a code for accepting defeat in Ankara and Istanbul. The AKP, however, is continuing to contest both results. They say that how the disputed Istanbul vote is resolved will be key to determining whether the political divide deepens.