ANKARA—Turkey’s top election authority voided the mayoral election won by an opposition candidate in Istanbul and ordered a do-over, ruling May 6 in favor of a request by the president’s party to throw out the vote it narrowly lost.
Opposition leaders said the Supreme Electoral Board’s decision to invalidate the results from Istanbul’s election raises concerns about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grip on power and Turkish democracy in general.
Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, placed first by a slim margin in the March 31 mayoral election, defeating the ruling party candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
Erdogan’s conservative and Islamic-based Justice and Development Party, or AKP, alleged that a series of election irregularities made the results illegitimate.
Repeated ballot recounts and earlier appeals failed to keep Imamoglu from being declared the winner. He took office on April 17,
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said the Supreme Electoral Board revoked Imamoglu’s mandate and called a new election for June 23. As grounds to annul the March 31 results, the board said that some ballot station heads were not civil servants as required by law, the news agency said.
Yildirim, the ruling party’s candidate in Istanbul, said he hoped the decision would lead to “beneficial and beautiful results for Istanbul.”
Leaders of the opposition held an emergency meeting late on May 6. Imamoglu said he would wait for official word from the electoral board before commenting on the decision.
Lawmaker Baris Yarkadas, a fellow CHP member, wrote on Twitter that he considered the ruling evidence the electoral authority “has succumbed to political pressure.”
“I feel sorry for Turkey,” Yarkadas wrote.
Police set up barricades around the electoral board’s headquarters in Turkey’s capital of Ankara, but there were no immediate signs of demonstrations.
Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at the nonprofit Project for Middle East Democracy and a Middle East history scholar at St. Lawrence University in New York, said the May 6 ruling “removes the last fig leaf of competitive elections” hiding the erosion of democracy in Turkey.
“Turkey wasn’t democratic yesterday and it’s not democratic today,” Eissenstat said.
He noted that Erdogan’s party previously invalidated election results in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish-populated regions after a pro-Kurdish party won and replaced elected mayors with government appointees.
“Erdogan cannot afford to lose in the second round. It would a disastrous display of weakness,” Eissenstat said.
The local elections held across Turkey on March 31 produced setbacks for the president. His party lost city hall in the capital, Ankara, as well as in Istanbul, ending the 25 years the Justice and Development Party and its Islamist predecessor were in charge of both cities.
The loss of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and the country’s commercial and cultural capital, was particularly hard for Erdogan. He began his political ascent as Istanbul mayor.
At pre-election rallies, he repeatedly told crowds, “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey” and “Whoever loses Istanbul, loses Turkey.”
Istanbul, with its 15 million residents and strategic location straddling Europe and Asia, is Turkey’s financial and cultural heart. It made up 31% of Turkey’s GDP of $851 billion in 2017 and draws millions of tourists.
The city government had a budget of $8.8 billion last year. The municipality has awarded lucrative contracts to businesses close to the government over the years and offers huge financial resources and employment opportunities.
By Suzan Frazer