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Voters went big for the opposition in Turkey's local elections this weekend


OK, to Turkey now, which held elections yesterday - local elections in which voters went big for opposition candidates and, in the process, handed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party its worst defeat in more than 20 years. The most closely watched race saw the mayor of Istanbul defeat the ruling party challenger, prompting Erdogan to say, message received, that he would work to address voters' complaints. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following all this from Istanbul. Hey, Peter.


KELLY: Was this a surprise, this big opposition win?

KENYON: Well, it was a real surprise for many people. The opposition, the People's Republican Party (ph), as it's known, seen as Turkey's main secular opposition party, outpaced the more conservative Justice and Development Party candidates in a way that really hasn't been seen before. And that's in part because there's a new far right party that seems to have jumped into the fray and, in the process, drained some conservative votes away from the ruling party.

Now this is seen as a blow to Erdogan. You know, he's been the dominant figure in Turkish politics for decades now. He was Istanbul's mayor back in the 1990s. Then he became prime minister. Now he's president. But yesterday, voters all across the country send a signal that, for many of them, Erdogan's political star really isn't any more on the rise. Erdogan, of course, wasn't on the ballot himself, but analysts do believe voters are trying to send a message.

KELLY: Well, let's step back for a second, Peter. The strong showing for the opposition - these were, again, local elections, but are there implications here for Turkey domestically, even internationally?

KENYON: Well, this is an interesting point. Here in Turkey, it is a huge boost, of course, for a political opposition that has languished in Erdogan's shadow for some time. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu won praise for how he ran the city in his first term, despite repeated moves by pro-Erdogan forces to restrict, cut back the money he had access to. Now, internationally - as you say, these were local elections, not a lot of foreign policy implications, but the elections were closely being watched in the region and beyond. So international leaders will certainly be aware now that this time Erdogan didn't seem to have the same political magic he once had. Meanwhile, the opposition seems to be gaining strength.

KELLY: And is that true throughout the country, Peter? I mean, you're in Istanbul. What about the rest of the country? How did things go outside the big cities?

KENYON: Well, in general, the opposition did well in many places beyond Istanbul. The big cities beyond that, besides Istanbul - you have Ankara, Izmir, Bursa - they all had sizeable opposition victories. And Bursa in particular used to be a ruling party stronghold for years. That was a real sea change. The opposition is now in charge in a large part of the country, from Istanbul to Ankara and beyond, while the ruling party has shrunk. It has a much smaller presence in parts of the country where it used to dominate.

KELLY: When we say Erdogan has gotten the message, he's going to respond to voter concerns, what are you watching for?

KENYON: Well, good question. He gave a late-night address last night, and he basically gave the concession speech that usually the candidate would have given. He acknowledged misreading the mood of the electorate, promised to turn his attention to the issues voters are most worried about, mainly the economy and inflation. I mean, that has really hit Turkey's working class hard. And we should note, despite this political setback, Erdogan is in office until 2028, so he's got plenty of time to work on restoring his popularity with voters.

KELLY: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.