US holds its fire on Istanbul election nullification

The State Department says it is monitoring Turkey’s decision to scrap the Istanbul mayoral election results, but has so far refrained from directly weighing in.

al-monitor An election banner with the pictures of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Justice and Development Party mayoral candidate Binali Yildirim is seen over the Galata Bridge in Istanbul, May 7, 2019. Although Yildirim lost the March 31 vote, a new election is now going to be held June 23. Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.
Bryant Harris

Bryant Harris

@brykharris_ALM

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Turkey elections

May 7, 2019

The Donald Trump administration is avoiding criticism of Turkey's decision to annul local elections in Istanbul won by the main opposition group, in stark contrast with some of its closest allies.

Monday's announcement of a do-over sparked outrage in Europe, with the European Union demanding that the Supreme Electoral Council justify its “far-reaching” decision “without delay” and Germany deeming it “incomprehensible.”

The US State Department, however, is keeping its powder dry, saying it is “studying the situation closely.”

“We expect a free, fair and transparent electoral process to be fully respected by all involved so that the will of the voters is acknowledged in the results,” a State Department spokesperson said on background. “A healthy Turkish democracy is in the interest of Turkey and its partners, including the United States, and helps ensure a stable, prosperous and reliable ally.”

The nullification follows complaints of electoral fraud by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which suffered a major setback with the loss of the country's largest and richest city to Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People's Party. The new poll, which Imamoglu has condemned as an AKP ploy to steal the election, has been scheduled for June 23. Istanbul's governor, Ali Yerlikaya, has been assigned as acting mayor until then.

The electoral council also plans to pursue criminal charges against members of the district election council, accusing them of illegally selecting polling staff. Erdogan defended the decision at a parliamentary meeting of the AKP today, decrying “illegality” in the March 31 vote.

“We see this decision as the best step that will strengthen our will to solve problems within the framework of democracy and law,” Erdogan said.

The Trump administration's cautious approach comes as the United States and Turkey are involved in tough negotiations over delicate issues, including the future of northeast Syria, where Turkey seeks to push back US-backed Kurdish fighters, and US objections to Turkey's pending purchase of a Russian-made missile defense system. US officials may be unwilling to further complicate an already tense relationship for uncertain gain.

“It may be they’re going to come out with something stronger, it may be that they thought the statement might add ammunition for the AKP against the opposition, it may be something entirely bureaucratic,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University in New York.

He noted that the Trump administration has not shied away from taking a hard line with Ankara on other issues in recent months, pointing in part to AKP objections last week after the US Embassy in Ankara rolled out a banner touting World Press Freedom Day (Turkey is currently the largest jailer of journalists in the world). 

Depending on the outcome of the election do-over, in which Imamoglu has vowed to participate in hopes of handing the AKP another stinging defeat, the United States may yet involve itself more forcefully.

“It’s difficult for us to ignore the sliding of democratic principles, not just the mayoral elections, what’s happened with reporters, what’s happened with so many different areas where democracy has been scarified,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a top member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “America’s relationships have to be wrapped in our values.”

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