RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There was a rare sight in Istanbul last night. Opponents of longtime President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated on the streets because a rare thing had happened. Erdogan's ruling party lost control of Turkey's largest city for the first time in a quarter century. Voters confirmed their preference for the opposition candidate for mayor by an even wider margin than in the original vote in March. To help sort out what this means, we've got NPR's Peter Kenyon with us. Hi, Peter.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Is this a surprise?
KENYON: Well, not the outcome so much - some may have been surprised by the margin, pretty big this time. It's as if voters were saying, we meant it the first time. Why did you make us vote again?
KENYON: People had been wary of the ruling party, though. They managed to reject the earlier defeat, convince Turkey's election council to throw it all out and do it over. So when I went to visit some polling places yesterday, the voters I spoke with said they were determined to send an even bigger message to the government with an even bigger victory for the opposition candidate, a man named Ekrem Imamoglu. Here's how one voter, Yannis Paisios, put it.
YANNIS PAISIOS: Well this is what the opposition hoped, that Imamoglu will win the race with a sizable difference, and therefore the president, the ruling AKP party will get the message that they're doing something not quite in the right way and change their ways. Perhaps this time the message will hit home.
KENYON: And unofficial returns show they hit him with a much bigger margin, close to 800,000 votes this time in favor of the opposition. Turkish voters are very serious about their responsibilities. Turnout's usually quite high. And this time the media was full of stories of people canceling vacations, coming home, airports packed. And a lot of them, it seems, wanted to make sure their original vote didn't get reversed.
MARTIN: Erdogan's been under a lot of pressure internationally, in particular with the U.S. The U.S. and Turkey are at odds over a number of issues. Does this loss weaken Erdogan?
KENYON: Well, clearly this is a blow to his prestige. He's been virtually untouchable since rising from serving as mayor himself in Istanbul to become prime minister and then president, sidelining the military, taking sweeping executive powers along the way. As you mentioned, there's a number of disputes right now between Ankara and Washington.
The U.S. isn't happy with Turkey buying missiles from Russia, threatening not to sell Turkey F-35 fighter jets. Ankara has complained repeatedly about Washington's support for Kurdish rebels down in Syria that Turkey views as terrorists. And the U.S. refusal to extradite this cleric the Erdogan government blames for a failed coup attempt here a few years ago has also strained ties.
Now, just losing one city, Istanbul, doesn't terrifically damage Erdogan directly. He's on track to be in power for years to come still. These disputes are his to deal with, not the mayor's. But as the president himself said a couple years ago, if we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey. Well, now he's lost Istanbul.
MARTIN: Wow. I suppose it behooves us to ask about the man who's going to be the next mayor of Istanbul. Who is he?
KENYON: Exactly - Ekrem Imamoglu, he ran a relentlessly positive campaign. Erdogan tried to attack him, called him a Greek at one point and a supporter of terrorism at another. But Imamoglu just kept smiling, ignored the attacks. One analyst I spoke with, Sinan Ulgen at Istanbul Economics, says it's likely he'll just stay on in that vein, focusing on services, budgets - not so much digging into what the ruling party got up to during its last 25 years in power.
There were some thought that shady contract dealings might have been exposed. But that will probably wait for a later time. Imamoglu's got other things on his mind right now, like figuring out how to run this large city.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Peter Kenyon for us this morning. Thanks, Peter, we appreciate it.
KENYON: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.