Berlin (CNSNews.com) – European Union leaders have criticized the annulment of mayoral elections in Istanbul, suggesting a further setback to Turkey’s long-stalled hopes to join the union.
“Ensuring a free, fair and transparent election process is essential to any democracy and is at the heart of the European Union's relations with Turkey,” two senior E.U. officials said in a statement responding to the decision by Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) for the election to be re-run in June.
In a major blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost control over Turkey’s biggest city in the March 31 local elections.
The win by the secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) ended 25 years of control of the city by the AKP and its Islamist precursors. Erdogan was himself mayor from 1994-1998.
For weeks the AKP has been complaining about irregularities, and the YSK ruled that some ballot box committees had been improperly formed in breach of the law, thus necessitating a re-run.
The critical E.U. response came from foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the senior official responsible for issues relating to E.U. enlargement, European Commissioner Johannes Hahn.
“The justification for this far-reaching decision, taken in a highly politicized context, should be made available for public scrutiny without delay,” they said.
“We expect the Turkish authorities to extend their invitation to international observers, such as the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, to observe the re-run elections,” it said.
Addressing an AKP parliamentary meeting on Tuesday, Erdogan claimed that the elections in Istanbul had been marked by “organized corruption and full illegality.”
“We see this [YSK] decision as an important step in strengthening our democracy, which will enable the removal of the shadow cast over the Istanbul election,” he added.
But CHP leader Ekrem Imamoglu called the decision “treacherous.” He promised supporters that the party would win again, saying that the re-run would only “strengthen our democratic struggle.”
While Erdogan’s AKP led-alliance won 51 percent of the nationwide vote, the CHP was victorious not only in Istanbul, home to 16 million people, but also in the capital, Ankara, and in Turkey’s third-largest city, Izmir.
The CHP’s margin of victory in Istanbul was narrow – 48.77 percent compared to the AKP’s 48.61 percent.
The E.U. and Turkey have an interdependent relationship: Turkey is a partner in an agreement with the E.U. aimed at stemming the flow of refugees into Europe. It is also a key NATO ally in the fight against terrorism.
At the same time, Erdogan’s autocratic policies and other issues have placed talks on E.U. membership effectively on an indefinite hold.
In March last year the European Parliament voted to suspend accession talks due to concerns over Erdogan’s extensive crackdown – including the detention of 150,000 people – following a failed coup attempt in 2017. The union was also troubled by Erdogan’s granting himself sweeping executive powers following a narrowly-won constitutional referendum in 2017.
The latest YSK decision has only appeared to deepen these concerns – not least of all because critics have questioned the independence of the seven-member YSK in the past.
In the crucial 2017 referendum, for example, its decision to count more than 2.5 million votes as valid despite the fact they were either not stamped or improperly stamped by ballot box committees, drew sharp criticism. That decision was seen as advantageous to Erdogan and the AKP.
“Under such leadership, accession talks are impossible,” said Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister who leads the liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group in the European parliament.
“This outrageous decision highlights how Erdogan’s Turkey is drifting toward a dictatorship,” Verhofstadt commented on Twitter.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin did not consider the decision “either transparent or justified.”
“The will of the Turkish voters should be the sole factor determining who becomes mayor of Istanbul,” he said in a statement. “Upholding basic democratic principles by ensuring that electoral conditions are transparent is in our opinion the paramount priority.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus called the YSK decision, which came after it earlier certified the results of the mayoral election in Istanbul, “extraordinary.”
“Free and fair elections and acceptance of legitimate election results are essential for any democracy,” she said in a statement.
“Turkey has a long, proud democratic tradition. We urge Turkish authorities to carry out this election in keeping with its laws, and in a manner that is consistent with its OSCE commitments, its status as a NATO ally, and its aspirations for membership in the European Union.”
Both the AKP and CHP have confirmed that their candidates will stand again in the June re-run.