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Opinion | There is still some life left in Turkey’s democracy

Voters in Turkey delivered a strong and unmistakable rebuke to increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party in municipal elections Sunday. They handed the opposition the largest share of the vote and control of the country’s five largest cities. The question now is whether Mr. Erdogan will heed the message and change his illiberal and intolerant style of governing. The darker possibility is that he’ll respond to the setback with even more repression.

The victorious mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, was easily reelected despite Mr. Erdogan campaigning heavily for his challenger. Mr. Imamoglu, a longtime rival to Mr. Erdogan, summed up the significance of the opposition victory, saying the vote “marks the end of democratic erosion in Turkey and the resurgence of democracy.”

If only it were that easy. Mr. Erdogan, immediately chastened by the result, acknowledged his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, had “lost momentum.” He promised to engage in a period of “self-criticism.” We hope he is sincere and that his critical self-examination leads to an opening of Turkey’s democratic space, a restoration of once-independent institutions and civil society, an end to media censorship, and the release of hundreds of political prisoners and journalists.

Despite being ostensibly a democracy, Turkey under Mr. Erdogan’s dominance for the past two decades has been known for its democratic retreat and his centralization of power in an imperial presidency. Freedom House now lists Turkey as “not free,” with abysmal scores for political rights and civil liberties. Reporters Without Borders’ most recent press freedom index puts Turkey at 165 out of 180 countries, below even Russia and Cambodia as a profligate jailer of journalists.

Even with his assault on democratic norms, Mr. Erdogan has been able to maintain legitimacy in the West — including the United States — because of the country’s crucial strategic position. Turkey is a long-standing member of NATO and has the alliance’s second-largest army, and it has participated in NATO-led military operations. But Mr. Erdogan is often a troublesome ally. Turkey has refused to join the sanctions against Russia after the Kremlin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, maintaining trade relations with Moscow. And Mr. Erdogan keeps close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Turkish voters, in turning against Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party and embracing the opposition, were likely swayed as much by Turkey’s dire economic situation as by geopolitical concerns or the president’s increasing authoritarianism. While centralizing power in the presidency, Mr. Erdogan has proved an inept manager of the economy. Inflation is now running at around 70 percent, unemployment is high, and the value of the Turkish lira has cratered by more than 80 percent in the past five years.

There have been signs lately that Mr. Erdogan is abandoning some of his earlier, unorthodox economic views that led to the country’s crisis — such as resisting interest rate hikes, believing they would lead to higher prices. The Central Bank under a new and more competent team last year belatedly began raising rates. But much of the damage from Mr. Erdogan’s mismanagement has been harder to reverse.

Mr. Erdogan, 70, has dominated Turkish politics since 2003 and last year won reelection against an uninspiring opposition candidate in a close race that required Turkey’s first-ever runoff. Mr. Erdogan was recently quoted saying Sunday’s municipal elections would be the last in which he would be involved. But few expect him to relinquish power so readily. Many believe Mr. Erdogan will try to force through a change in the constitution to allow him to run for another term in 2028.

If Mr. Erdogan tries to run again, he might face a formidable opponent in the charismatic 53-year-old Mr. Imamoglu. Mr. Erdogan already has shown he fears Mr. Imamoglu — likely because running the city of Istanbul was his own political springboard to the presidency. In 2019, when Mr. Imamoglu first won the Istanbul mayor’s race in an upset, the ruling party tried to have him disqualified. Eventually, a do-over election was held, and Mr. Imamoglu won again handily. Mr. Imamoglu is still battling a spurious 2022 court case from that kept him from running for president last year and could still see him disqualified from office.

Whether Sunday’s elections really mark the end of Turkey’s democratic backsliding remains an open question. The answer depends on whether Mr. Erdogan is willing to listen to the message the voters have clearly sent.