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Erdogan’s party formally asks for new local vote in Istanbul

Automobiles pass an electoral banner for the AK Party featuring Binali Yildirim and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, on a street in Istanbul on March 28, 2019.

MIGUEL ANGEL SANCHEZ/BLOOMBERG

By SELCAN HACAOGLU AND FIRAT KOZOK | Bloomberg | Published: April 16, 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party officially called for a new election in Istanbul, raising the prospect of renewed political turmoil just as the government sought to shore up confidence in the economy and avert a showdown with the U.S. over missiles.

The AK Party submitted an “extraordinary objection” to the election board on Tuesday while a partial recount of the votes in some districts was underway. It alleged irregularities tainted the results of the March 31 vote that put an opposition candidate ahead in the mayoral race.

Erdogan held the post of Istanbul mayor at the start of his political career in the 1990s and his refusal to concede defeat has been condemned by political opponents as another attack on Turkey’s democratic foundations. It’s also rattled investors in the Middle East’s biggest economy, with the lira down 0.3 percent against the dollar on Tuesday.

“Even if the High Election Board rejects this request, the damage to Turkey’s reputation is already done,” said Tim Ash, senior strategist at BlueBay Asset Management in London.

These are testing political and economic times for Turkey, and Erdogan is struggling to contain the fallout after 17 years in power.

The economy entered its first recession in a decade following a currency crash last year and the International Monetary Fund predicts it will contract by more than 2 percent. Erdogan’s position as leader is intact, but he unexpectedly lost control of Turkey’s largest cities in local elections. Ties with the U.S., meanwhile, are at their worst since at least the 1970s in part because of Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian missiles.

The government in Ankara said it was forced to turn to Russia for protection against aerial attacks after Washington balked for years at selling it Patriot missile defense systems. The U.S. says the Russian missile shield was designed to shoot down American and allied aircraft.

Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, said Turkey has taken its case for buying a Russian air-defense system directly to President Donald Trump to defuse tensions between the NATO allies. He told reporters on Monday there was “quite positive feedback.”

Washington has threatened to impose sanctions and to expel Turkey from the F-35 allied defense program. U.S. sanctions likely would intensify market turmoil, as happened during a diplomatic standoff between the countries last year.

While in the U.S., Albayrak also tried to bolster confidence in the economy, saying it probably emerged from its first recession in a decade. “We’ve come out of a difficult period with a minimum amount of damage,” he said. “We’ll take whatever steps necessary to meet our targets because there are no elections ahead of us. We will take those steps with great ease.”

The green shoots in Turkey’s economy, though, are few and far between. The ranks of the unemployed swelled by 366,000 people in one month, pushing the jobless rate in January to the highest level in a decade. A continued weakness of domestic demand is weighing on Turkey’s growth prospects following last year’s depreciation of 28 percent in the currency.

Now another election might loom. The latest tally shows Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition’s candidate for mayor of Istanbul, leading his rival by around 14,000 votes in the city of 16 million people.

The AKP previously requested a separate, new election in the Istanbul suburb of Buyukcekmece, citing irregularities in the registration of voters. The election board had denied the AK party’s request for a full recount in the city.

“There was an organized irregularity, a complete vote fraud,” AKP Deputy Chairman Ali Ihsan Yavuz told reporters on Tuesday.

Nearly 17,000 votes cast for AKP were registered for other parties, he said. He didn’t produce any evidence, though walked into the election board building with three black roller bags that he said were stuffed with evidence of fraud.

Turkey’s biggest cities turned against Erdogan for the first time since 1994 in a municipal election roiled by a raging recession and a recent run on the currency. The capital, Ankara, and cities along the Mediterranean coast slipped from the grasp of his nationalist alliance, which largely stood its ground across much of the country’s rural interior.

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