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Turkey’s Democratic Credentials Pushed to The Limit

Re-run of Istanbul’s Mayoral Election Threatens Voters’ Right to Choose

The dubious decision to cancel the March 31 Istanbul mayoral election win by opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu, in the absence of compelling evidence that the vote was not free or fair, has interfered with the democratic right of millions of voters.

A banner widely displayed around Istanbul in April shows President Erdoğan and his candidate for mayor, Binali Yıldırım, with the words "Thank you Istanbul” even though opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won the March 31 municipal election. Istanbul, April 2019. © 2019 Human Rights Watch

On May 6, Turkey’s Higher Election Board cancelled the Istanbul result, with a re-run now scheduled for June 23. The Board had initially acknowledged İmamoğlu as the winner on April 17, after recounts in many districts. Since it first became clear that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s candidate Binali Yıldırım had been defeated, Erdoğan and his allies repeatedly claimed that the election was flawed.

The board has yet to present any credible evidence that the Istanbul election was not fair and does not represent the will of the people. As the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly noted, election reviews must be fair and objective, leading to a reasoned decision, with safeguards to prevent any abuse of power by the reviewing authorities. But the board’s decision appears arbitrary and politically motived and as such undermines voters’ right to express themselves freely in elections, a right protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.

While the EU was quick to ask the Higher Election Board to say why it cancelled the result, Erdoğan moved to endorse it, saying in a thunderous speech on Tuesday  that “dirty hands” had been at play.  

This is not the first interference in the March 31 polls. Eight winning candidates from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were removed because the same board changed the rules after they won, deeming the winners not eligible for office because they had been civil servants dismissed during Turkey’s state of emergency.

Indeed, Kurds in Turkey are familiar with moves to deny the outcome of their vote, with many of their elected parliamentarians and mayors removed from office and jailed in 2016.

Erdoğan has always tied his mandate to rule Turkey to his success at the ballot box, beginning in 1994 when he became mayor of Istanbul. But if his mandate now involves cancelling election results, Turkey’s days as an effective political democracy are numbered.

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