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16th Nov 2019

Turkey election fiasco hits at 'heart' of EU relations

  • Istanbul, home to 15m people, accounts for almost a third of Turkey's GDP. Now the election victory of the opposition CHP party in the city has been overturned (Photo: Remon Rijper)

The way Turkey handles the Istanbul election controversy could shape future EU relations, top officials have warned.

But for some leading MEPs, Turkish democracy just breathed its last gasp.

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"Ensuring a free, fair and transparent election process ... is at the heart of the European Union's relations with Turkey," the EU foreign relations chief, Federica Mogherini, and enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, said on Monday (6 March).

Speaking shortly after Turkish authorities ordered a rerun of the recent mayoral election in Istanbul that the ruling party had lost, the EU pair urged Ankara to open up their reasoning to "public scrutiny" and to invite international observers to the new vote on 23 June.

The Council of Europe in Strasbourg, which had monitored the initial vote 31 March, said the Istanbul decision "has the potential to severely damage the trust of the Turkish voters in the electoral authorities".

But two leading MEPs - Kati Piri, a Dutch socialist who is the European Parliament's Turkey rapporteur, and Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian who chairs the liberal Alde group - went further.

"This ends the credibility of democratic transition of power through elections in Turkey," Piri said.

"This outrageous decision highlights how Erdogan's Turkey is drifting towards a dictatorship. Under such leadership, accession talks are impossible," Verhofstadt said, referring to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey's EU accession talks, which have been on hold since 2016 anyway.

The controversy arose after Turkey's Supreme Election Council (YSK) earlier on Monday annulled the victory of Ekrem Imamoglu, from the opposition CHP party.

His win, in Turkey's richest and most populous city, was a loss of face for Erdogan and his AKP party.

The YSK said the result was invalid because of faulty paperwork and because some electoral officials were not civil servants, as required.

It also spoke of filing criminal charges and accused some officials of being members of "FETO" - followers of an exiled Muslim guru, Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accused of plotting a coup back in 2016 and in whose name he has jailed tens of thousands of his political opponents.

"The justice system will hold accountable all individuals and organisations that violated electoral laws during this process," Erdogan's spokesman, Fahrettin Altun, said.

The decision saw hundreds of protesters bang pots and pans in the streets of Istanbul on Monday evening.

"Shame on the YSK. They were placed under political pressure from day one," the CHP's Imamoglu told one crowd of supporters in the city in a speech broadcast on social media.

"The people chose me. We are the Turkish youth who are thirsting for justice and believe in democracy," he added.

"This is a downright dictatorship," Onursal Adiguzel, a CHP deputy from Istanbul said on Twitter.

"It's free to enter an election against the AKP but forbidden to win it," he said.

The March vote saw the AKP bloc win just 51 percent of the vote nationwide despite the rulers' near-total control of national media and its two-year long purge of Erdogan's critics.

The CHP also won in Ankara and Izmir, with AKP contesting the Ankara win and with some non-AKP mayors also forbidden to take up office despite having won it in minor towns in south-east Turkey.

Binal Yildrim, the AKP candidate who lost in Istanbul, said the new vote would lead to "beneficial and beautiful results".

Altun, the Erdogan spokesman, also said the new vote would be "transparent, lawful and orderly".

But markets saw it differently, with the value of the lira sliding another two points against the US dollar amid concern on Turkey's political and economic future.

The lira already lost a third of its value over the past year, making it the second worst performing currency in the world after the Argentinian peso.

Erdogan's authoritarian pivot has also seen inflation soar to nearly 20 percent and unemployment rise to 15 percent, harming his popularity and posing questions on what happens if the CHP's Imamoglu was to win Istanbul a second time in June.

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