Turkey recounts Istanbul votes after Erdogan's party appeals loss

Gokan Gunes with Raziye Akkoc in Ankara
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Electoral authorities recounted votes in more than a dozen Istanbul districts

Electoral authorities recounted votes in more than a dozen Istanbul districts (AFP Photo/Ozan KOSE)

Istanbul (AFP) - Turkish electoral authorities on Wednesday recounted votes in more than a dozen Istanbul districts after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AKP challenged results giving the opposition a narrow victory in a weekend election.

The AKP won most votes nationwide in Sunday's municipal ballot, but tallies also showed the party lost the capital Ankara and the country's economic hub Istanbul in one of its worst setbacks in a decade and a half in power.

AKP officials on Tuesday filed a challenge with electoral authorities saying they had found irregularities in ballots in both Ankara and Istanbul.

"The district branches of the electoral board in Istanbul decided to recount the ballots in eight districts after the appeals yesterday," Supreme Election Board chief Sadi Guven told reporters.

Anadolu state news agency later said officials were recounting votes in 18 Istanbul districts, including in three where every vote was being verified. In the other districts, officials were checking only nullified ballots.

In Ankara, officials ordered the recounting of all votes for mayor in 11 city districts. It was not immediately clear when those recounts would start.

AKP officials had said there was a huge discrepancy in both cities between ballots cast at polling stations and data sent to election authorities.

Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, was a key election prize for Erdogan and he presented former premier and loyalist Binali Yildirim to run as the party candidate for mayor.

Erdogan, who launched his political career as Istanbul mayor, had campaigned hard in the city. But the ruling party was stung by the economy with Turkey in recession for the first time in a decade and inflation in double digits.

In a video shared on Wednesday on social media, Erdogan sought to reassure supporters over the election. "Everything is still ongoing," he said, referring to the appeal.

He also criticised the opposition as "lame ducks", and said the AKP still controlled the majority of district councils in Istanbul and Ankara even if the opposition victories for the mayor posts were confirmed.

- Narrowing gap -

Istanbul was a tight race and both Yildirim and the opposition CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu declared victory when tallies showed them in a dead heat.

Electoral authorities on Monday said Imamoglu was ahead by 28,000 votes with nearly all ballot boxes tallied, prompting AKP officials to challenge the result.

"The world is watching us, watching the results of our city's election," Imamoglu told reporters on Wednesday, asking to be handed his mandate as soon as possible.

"Don't let Turkey's credibility be destroyed by three or four people acting like they are kids who had their toys taken away from them," he said.

But the AKP was fighting back. Deputy chairman Ali Ihsan Yavuz claimed the difference had now slipped to fewer than 20,000 votes between Imamoglu and Yildirim.

Imamoglu had 48.79 percent of the votes while Yildirim had 48.52 percent, Anadolu reported on Tuesday, citing preliminary results.

It reported close to 300,000 votes had been annulled in Istanbul voting on election day.

A loss in Istanbul would be especially sensitive for Erdogan, who grew up in the city's working-class Kasimpasa neighbourhood and liked to tell AKP rank-and-file that victory in the city was like winning all of Turkey.

- Electoral 'coup' claim -

Asked about the AKP's challenge on Tuesday, a US official urged parties to accept election results.

"Free and fair elections are essential to any democracy and this means acceptance of legitimate election results are essential. And we expect nothing less from Turkey," deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said in a briefing.

Turkey's presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun responded, urging "all parties, including foreign governments, to respect the legal process and refrain from taking any steps that may be construed as meddling in Turkey's internal affairs."

Ties between NATO allies Washington and Ankara have been frayed recently by several issues, including Ankara's purchase of a Russian missile system, a deal for US-made F-35 fighters and disagreements over US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria's war.

Some pro-government newspapers on Wednesday branded the Istanbul defeat an electoral "coup" similar to the failed coup Erdogan survived in 2016. That bid was blamed by Turkish officials on a US-based Muslim preacher, Fethullah Gulen.

"An Istanbul coup has been staged in the March 31 elections," wrote Yeni Safak pro-government newspaper columnist Ibrahim Karagul, calling for a new vote.

"A coup has been staged through the elections, through the ballot boxes."