EU looks on with disbelief, concern as Turkey reruns election

(Story was updated with statements from Council of Europe official, S&D Group in European Parliament, German politicians, Erdoğan aide, tweet from Helsinki Commission.)

A Turkish decision to hold fresh elections for mayor of Istanbul is sparking disbelief and concern in the European Union, which has already frozen progress on the country's membership talks.

Guy Verhofstadt, a top European parliamentarian and former prime minister of Belgium, slammed the ruling by Turkey’s election board late on Monday to rerun the March vote, won by opposition politician Ekrem Imamoglu.

“This outrageous decision highlights how Erdoğan’s Turkey is drifting towards a dictatorship,” Verhofstadt, who is president of the alliance of the EU parliamentary group, Liberals and Democrats for Europe, said on Twitter. “Under such leadership, accession talks are impossible. Full support to the Turkish people protesting for their democratic rights and for a free and open Turkey!”

The controversial ruling raises more fears for democracy under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and makes any further progress on the country’s EU accession bid even less likely. Membership talks have been stalled by Europe's political leadership since the aftermath of a 2016 failed coup attempt, which resulted in the rounding up of tens of thousands of people on terrorism charges, including university lecturers, human rights activists and lawyers.

European Commission chief Johannes Hahn said the Turkish Supreme Election Council (YSK) should make details of its ruling available for public scrutiny. The decision was made “in a highly politicised context,” Hahn said in a joint statement with Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy.

The Council of Europe, which sent election monitors to the initial nationwide elections on March 31, said the rerun "has the potential to severely damage the trust of the Turkish voters in the electoral authorities".

The European Parliament's Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D Group), which is represented in the current parliament by 190 MEPs, condemned the decision to annul the Istanbul result in a statement signed by Udo Bullman, the group's president.

"The decision by the YSK to wipe away a crushing defeat for President Erdogan is a totally political one. It clearly favours the AK Party and is further proof of Turkish democratic backsliding", said Bullman's statement.

The S&D Group joined in Hahn's call for Turkey to host international observers at the rerun.

"The only goal seems to change the democratic result of the March elections that were a humiliating defeat for Erdogan and his party. This decision will have consequences for the future Turkey-EU relations and on Turkish EU candidate status", it continued.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Tuesday the YSK's decision had raised serious concerns, and said its justification had not been convincing.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also spoke out against the YSK’s decision to scrap the results of Istanbul's mayoral election and rerun the polls, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported.

Maas described the election body's decision as "not transparent and incomprehensible," adding "who holds the office of Istanbul's mayor can only be decided by the will of the Turkish voters."

"Maintaining democratic principles with transparent electoral conditions is our top priority," the German foreign minister added.

Turkish origin German lawmaker Cem Özdemir told Agence France-Presse the annulment had "nothing to with democracy," and proved the Turkish president was a "bitter old man, who has long passed the zenith of his power."

"In the world of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, everyone who thinks differently to him is a terrorist, and every election he loses is a sham election," the former leader of the Green Party said.

Turkey's lira fell to a seven-month low on Tuesday on concern that the new election could spark more political instability in the NATO member and delay the reforms investors say are needed to stabilise the economy, which is tentatively emerging from a currency crisis last year and stuck in recession. The lira dropped 1.5 percent to 6.16 per dollar, extending losses this year to 14 percent.

The Turkish authorities must restore the safeguards of the electoral process, said Anders Knape, the President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.

"The objections made by the ruling party against the voters’ lists of certain Istanbul districts, on the ground of alleged irregularities, came after the legal deadline," he said. "This is contrary to our understanding of a democratic fair play in elections.

“This situation is aggravated by reports we have received about pressure exerted by the government on the Supreme Election Council to rule in favour of a rerun."


The U.S. Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights and cooperation in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, tweeted on Tuesday to criticise the decision to rerun the election, which it implied had been taken at the behest of the ruling party.

Erdoğan's communications director Fahrettin Altun welcomed the ruling. 

"The YSK's decision for renewal of the Istanbul election has to be understood as an effort to reflect the nation's will in the correct way," he said. "Within this framework, the decision is a victory of our democracy,"