by Burak Akinci
ANKARA, June 24 (Xinhua) -- The decisive victory of the opposition in the rerun Istanbul mayoral election on Sunday, is a stinging defeat for Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who had put his weight into the race to recapture the country's largest city, said experts.
Ekrem Imamoglu from the Republican People's Party (CHP) secured 54 percent of votes, while Binali Yildirim from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) received 45 percent of votes, according to unofficial result reported by state-run Anadolu Agency, a far wider victory margin than his narrow win three months ago in the original vote.
"This is personal defeat for the president who kept his silence for weeks, but decided in the end to put his political weight in the race in the last week of campaigning for his party's candidate Yildirim, former prime minister," political commentator Deniz Zeyrek told Xinhua.
Zeyrek, a columnist at daily Sozcu, pointed out that as in the first campaign ahead of March 31 local elections, the Turkish leader used an aggressive rhetoric against the opposition during his rallies in Istanbul, adding to the mounting polarization of the Turkish society in recent years.
Though his name wasn't on the ballot, Erdogan has injected himself into the race to help his party's candidate, accusing Imamoglu, a previously little-known district mayor, of treachery and suggesting he could block his path if he wins again.
Sunday's vote was more than a simple mayoral election, turning into a test for the president's continued popularity. And if Imamoglu performs well as mayor, he would be seen as the future contender to Erdogan.
Downplaying a looming defeat predicted by pollsters, Erdogan insisted last week that if he wins, Imamoglu would only be "a change in the shop window" as the AKP and its nationalist ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), hold most of the districts and also a majority of counselors in Istanbul's city council, which could make decision-taking difficult.
Erdogan could also use his control of the central government to besiege the CHP mayor and tie his hand, preventing him to some extend from fulfilling his electoral promises.
A native of Istanbul, Erdogan held the powerful job of Istanbul mayor himself before becoming prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014.
"Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey," he said at rallies, but his party lost most of Turkey's big cities in the March elections. The commentators argue that he has bitterly miscalculated winning Istanbul in a second vote.
Imamoglu, 49, beat Yildirim, 63, by just than 13,000 votes in a city with 10 million voters in the March elections, annulled by the electoral board after weeks of recounts and controversy because of claims of irregularities.
The massive margin of about 800,000 votes in the rerun election in favor of Imamoglu left no room for doubt and gave a fresh breath to Turkish democracy, said the local media on Monday.
In his victory speech, Imamoglu said that he is ready to meet with Erdogan as soon as possible and cooperate "in harmony" with him on urging matters concerning Istanbul, the vast city of more than 15 million residents.
For his part, Erdogan extended his congratulations to Imamoglu from his Twitter account Sunday evening, adding that he will now focus "meticulously on domestic and international matters at hand, in line with our national interests."
The loss of Istanbul constitutes a major blow for Erdogan at a time when he faces a number of challenges to his rule which seems to have been eroded by an economic downturn since a currency turmoil last summer.
Erdogan must steady the recession-hit economy and confront foreign policy challenges, including a looming showdown with the United States over the purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, according to local experts.
Washington says the Russian arms will jeopardize NATO security, an argument rejected by Ankara who repeatedly said that it's "a done deal" and that the first batch of missiles will be delivered in July.
However, the Turkish strongman's focus on a municipal election instead revealed how critical Istanbul, accounting for one third of Turkey's economy, is to his political movement, which has controlled the city, and its many lucrative contracts and projects, for a quarter century.
"There is a burning agenda ahead for Turkey as regards to foreign policy and economy matters, let's hope that the president will now be able to focus on these subjects who need his attention," said political analyst and journalist Serkan Demirtas to Xinhua.
"Turkey's NATO ally, the U.S., is preparing to impose sanctions on Turkey, this is a very serious issue. On the other hand, tensions are mounting in the Eastern Mediterranean over contested hydrocarbon explorations. Those are pivotal and pressing questions for Turkey," Demirtas added.