ANKARA • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, weakened by an opposition party's landslide win in Istanbul's repeat ballot, has scrambled to reassert his standing as the nation's most dominant politician in half a century by refocusing attention on a crucial trip to Asia.
In a spate of back-to-back Twitter messages after results came in on Sunday night, Mr Erdogan congratulated Istanbul's new Mayor, Mr Ekrem Imamoglu, vowed to maintain an alliance with a key nationalist party, and pledged to promote Turkey's interests at home and globally. Mr Erdogan also announced that he will visit China and Europe after a meeting of the Group of 20 (G-20) nations in Japan this week.
The Turkish President, who is expected to meet US President Donald Trump at the G-20 summit, sought to signal that he has moved on to more important issues such as threatened US sanctions over the purchase of a Russian missile defence system. Mr Erdogan had no choice but to flick at the currents underlying the Istanbul defeat, which has created ferment within his AK Party (AKP) and emboldened his jubilant opponents.
He is also aware that his refusal to concede defeat in the original election on March 31 is seen by many as fraying Turkey's rule of law at a time when the economy is suffering. Investors, however, welcomed the end to the electoral drama, and stocks and the lira surged.
"As in the past, we will work towards our 2023 goals without making concessions on democracy, the rule of law, the peace and stability of our country in line with the principles of our Republic Alliance," Mr Erdogan said, referring to his alliance with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, which he needs to maintain to retain power through the 2023 centenary of the Turkish republic.
President Erdogan will be keeping a close eye on sentiment within the ranks of the AKP and Mr Bahceli's MHP, said Mr Anthony Skinner, Middle East and North Africa director at risk analyst Verisk Maplecroft. "He has less room to manoeuvre than in recent years," Mr Skinner said.
Losing Istanbul was about much more than ceding control of Turkey's largest city and commercial powerhouse. The mayor's job was the springboard for Mr Erdogan's own political career. If Mr Imamoglu, 49, performs well, then the President may find himself with a future challenger.
Defeat in Istanbul, home to about a fifth of Turkey's 82 million people, also weakens AKP's access to a major source of patronage and handouts. By some estimates, the city absorbs a quarter of all public investment and accounts for a third of the country's US$748 billion (S$1 trillion) economy.
Mr Bahceli has sought to shut down any talk of early parliamentary and presidential polls at a time when the economy remains in distress with a double-dip recession threatening and unemployment stuck around 14 per cent. "Talking about a new early election is among the worst menaces to our country," Mr Bahceli said, reiterating that he would work with Mr Erdogan to resolve the country's problems.
Investors, who have been hoping that Turkey's leaders would finally shift their focus to economic reforms, have welcomed the decisive nature of Mr Imamoglu's 54 per cent victory over AKP candidate Binali Yildirim's 45 per cent. The lira was trading up by 1.5 per cent at 5.7280 per US dollar at 10.41am local time yesterday.
Mr Imamoglu, who had been deposed after 18 days in office, following the election board's decision that the March vote was tainted, broadened his margin of victory to nearly 800,000 votes - from 14,000 in the earlier balloting. He ran on behalf of the Republican People's Party and was backed by other opposition factions.