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Watershed in Turkey

As it turns out, for the first time in 25 years, Ankara has now gone out of the control of Islamist parties with the secularist victory.

Editorial | New Delhi |

Local elections anywhere in the world are scarcely of much international interest. Not so, however, Sunday’s tryst with democracy in the quangos of Turkey. The outcome is bathed in pregnant symbolism as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grip has been challenged fair and square. Specifically, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has lost control of the capital city of Ankara and the no less crucial Istanbul ~ historical cities both, and now with enormous contemporary significance. The main opposition, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) is the winner and the jubilation in Ankara on Monday is testament to the almost overwhelming anti-incumbency mood. It would be no exaggeration to aver that a national election does not always yield so dramatic a psephological swing. It has been an unofficial referendum, so-called, on the stuttering economy, which has been in dire straits for a while. Most particulary, the result underlines Mr Erdogan’s utter mishandling of the economic crisis. The verdict is virtually a message of no-confidence as the nation of 81 million people contends with a recession for the first time since Erdogan entered office in 2003. The recession has ended Turkey’s robust economic growth. It has been a definitive blow to his government, a debacle that can be contextualised with his recently expanded presidential powers, notably his authoritarian measures to buttress his party’s dominance in the two major cities. On closer reflection, more than Erdogan’s authoritarian streak, it is the faltering economy that has done his party in. In course of his campaign, the President had projected the local elections as a matter of “national survival”. As it turns out, for the first time in 25 years, Ankara has now gone out of the control of Islamist parties with the secularist victory. Erdogan’s Istanbul, his hometown and where he began his political career as mayor in 1994, bears witness to a not dissimilar narrative. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) regained several seats across the predominantly Kurdish south-east. It was a high-stakes election in the Kurdish-dominated segment. The results are likely to cause a headache for Erdogan within his party, fuelling rumours of a split within the AKP. The local elections have emitted two critical signals ~ it is a vote against the sharp economic downturn and no less critically, it is a verdict against the inroads of the Islamists. In the net, Turkey bears witness to the victory of secularism and democracy. This is the parable that President Erdogan will have to accept. Indubitably, it has been a watershed moment for Turkey, and one can almost hear Kemal Ataturk’s sigh of relief.