Turkey: Hometown Blues for Erdogan

When Istanbul elected a young, Islamist mayor in 1994, it sent a shockwave through Turkey's secular political establishment and marked the beginning of a sea change in the country's politics. Recep Tayyip Erdogan would use the mayoralty of Turkey's largest city as a springboard to national power, which he has now dominated for 16 years.

But on Sunday, his hometown turned its back on him.


In nationwide municipal elections, the coalition led by Erdogan's ruling AK Party (AKP) lost control of a number of key cities, including the nation's capital, Ankara, as well as several coastal centers.

But the biggest loss was Istanbul, which has been under the control of parties aligned with Erdogan since he was mayor. This is a significant setback for a leader, and a party, who have won every major election in Turkey since 2002.

The election was above all a referendum on Erdogan's increasing authoritarianism and his handling of the economy.

Over the past several years, Erdogan has vastly expanded his power. After a failed coup against his government in 2016, he purged more than 100,000 state employees and threw a number of journalists in jail. In 2017, he narrowly won a controversial referendum that permitted him to increase the power of the presidency, a position he then won in an election last summer.

In recent weeks, Erdogan campaigned furiously for his party, suggesting to Turkish voters that voting for the AKP was a matter of national survival and sovereignty.

But those voters went to the polls amid an economic recession spurred in part by Erdogan's disastrous economic policies: his approach of spouting conspiracy theories and pumping cash into the economy without worrying about inflation spooked foreign investors last year, leading to a currency crisis that affected the broader economy. What's more, urban voters have become increasingly frustrated with poor management and corruption at the local level in cities controlled by the AKP and its affiliates.

Yesterday wasn't all bad news for Erdogan: the AKP still won far more votes than any other party nationally, and it remains strong in the country's rural heartlands. For tens of millions of conservative Turks, Erdogan is still the man who made their voices heard in Turkish politics for the first time. And they still remember fondly the economic boom years over which he presided.

But losing the big cities means losing control over the country's major population centers and economic hubs, and with them a huge source of cash and patronage that can be doled out to supporters and cronies in the future.

Will Erdogan seek to win those cities back, or will he double down on an even more divisive politics now?

Elsewhere in the world of "throw the bums out": Turkey wasn't the only place where voters flipped on those in power this weekend. Across the Black Sea in Ukraine, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a president on TV, rang up nearly twice the vote share of the actual president, Petro Poroshenko, in the first round of that country's presidential balloting. Zelenskiy and Poroshenko – a chocolate industry tycoon who won the presidency after Ukraine's 2014 uprising – now head to a Comedian vs Candyman runoff on 21 April.

And next door in Slovakia, pro-EU anti-corruption crusader Zuzana Caputova won the presidency, amid a campaign shaped in part by the murder last year of an investigative journalist who'd unearthed ties between government officials and organized crime. Although Slovakia's presidency is a largely ceremonial office, the triumph of Caputova, a political newcomer and the country's first female president, flies in the face of recent gains for macho right-wing Euroskeptic parties elsewhere in Central Europe.

Tomorrow, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV. For perspective: Consider these two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: Your iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.

This time the field is more crowded with China's growing ambitions throwing US and Russian space dominance into question.

Europe has selected a new president of the European Commission. Last night, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen won support from a majority of members of European Parliament to lead the executive body that shapes policy for the world's largest economic bloc. The final result was a close shave, however — she won by a margin of just nine votes out of 757 — and there's something in the outcome for everyone to hate.

For many anti-EU populists, von der Leyen's appointment confirms their view that the EU is undemocratic and doesn't respect ordinary citizens. Why? Because she wasn't selected by the voters who went to the polls in the recent EU parliamentary elections — or even indirectly by the lawmakers who won those seats. She was hand-picked by leaders of the 28 EU member states, who side-stepped parliament after better-known candidates chosen by various political factions within the legislature failed to attract enough support from the national governments. Anti-EU politicians like France's Marine Le Pen will spend the next five years reminding us that von der Leyen's presidency reflects everything that's wrong with Brussels.

For Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and other European leaders who backed von der Leyen, her narrow margin of approval gives her a weak mandate as she confronts huge challenges such as the EU's fraught relations with the US and China, showdowns over Italy's budget, erosion of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, the economic and political fallout of the UK's exit (or not) from the bloc, and the EU's drive to regulate Big Tech.

Von der Leyen herself, who is from the center-right, made significant concessions to get her nomination through with parties that are deeply suspicious of her. Those included a promise to propose a so-called "green deal" within her first 100 days in office, reform the minimum wage, and launch a push for EU-wide legislation on artificial intelligence. Von der Leyen also pledged to reform the process for selecting future candidates for Commission president and to give the EU Parliament a "stronger role in shaping and designing" the EU's future. Now that von der Leyen has secured the closest thing the EU has to a top job, she'll be spending much of her political capital trying to deliver on those promises.