Analysts emphasize the criticality of Turkey’s municipal elections, highlighting the stakes for the Turkish president, Tayyip Erdogan, as Sunday’s result could even signal a change in the country’s direction, which would pose a challenge to the decades-long stay of the Turk leader in power.

A phrase of the Turkish president that “whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey” may turn out to be prophetic for him as well as for the future of the country of 85 million.

Such is the importance of this weekend’s vote that political analysts are speculating that a victory for Istanbul’s current mayor, the center-left Ekrem Imamoglu, would make him the favorite for the Turkish presidency in 2028.

This is the last thing Erdogan wants, having already seen his conservative Islamist-friendly Justice and Development Party, AK, count losses in Istanbul in the 2019 elections to Imamoglu and the more secular, moderate Republican People’s Party ( CHP). In response, then, to the negative election result, Erdogan called a second election, only to see the Imamoglu to beat the mayoral candidate of the AK Party by an even greater margin.

A victory for the opposition on Sunday could take the country in a new direction. After all, Erdogan himself rose to prominence as the mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s before later winning the presidency. Now, recognizing the importance of the elections, he is fighting hard for the party’s mayoral candidate by Murat Kuruma 47-year-old former environment minister.

“Istanbul stands out as a very important point of political battle,” Arda Tunca, an Istanbul-based economist at PolitikYol, told CNBC. The city is home to 16 million people, which makes it more densely populated than even the 20 countries out of 27 of the European Union.

At the same time, Turkey, as the second largest army in NATO and an important economic and political crossroads between East and West, has emerged as a global player in recent years, playing prominent roles either as a mediator in conflicts such as the Ukraine-Russia war or as a negotiator for major investments and trade deals with wealthy Gulf Arab states.

“Many countries in the world are run by cabinets, but Istanbul – bigger than many of these countries – is run by a mayor. This is strange, but it also shows how important it is to win Istanbul,” Tunca said.

Major Turkish cities such as Istanbul and the capital Ankara are at the center of attention during the election contests. Both were won by the opposition in 2019.

“Turkish municipal elections are often a political barometer ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2028,” said Kristin Ronzi, Middle East and North Africa analyst.

“Although the candidates’ platforms for the municipal elections highlight the local issues that affect the daily lives of Turkish citizens, the municipal elections can set the scene for the next presidential election.”

Hakan Akbas, senior adviser at the Albright Stonebridge Group, described the election as “a critical moment, potentially reshaping the political map and influencing economic policy, but also dictating the quality of urban life.”

“The stakes are high, as the results could either cement the AKP’s dominance or pave the way for a more pluralistic political landscape,” he said.

“The opposition’s main problem is the opposition itself” despite economic turmoil and inflation over 65%.

Tunca believes Erdogan’s long-dominant AKP Party will win this weekend’s election. She attributes this to the opposition itself, which she describes as her worst enemy.

“For the opposition, the main challenge is its weak politicians and disorganized politics. The main problem for the opposition is the opposition itself,” he said.