ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has thrown his full political weight into efforts to reverse the defeat of his AK Party in mayoral elections for Turkey's largest city, Istanbul.
Speaking to reporters Monday before flying to Moscow, Erdogan questioned the validity of the vote.
"We, as the political party, have detected an organized crime and some organized activities,"he said.
Until now, Erdogan appeared to step back from the deepening political controversy over the opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) success in Istanbul. The AKP in Istanbul is challenging the March 31 vote, seeking to overturn Ekram Imamoglu's 24,000 vote lead over Binali Yildirim.
AKP's efforts reduced Imamoglu's majority to around 15,000 votes. But the current reexamination of 300,000 invalidated ballots is almost complete. The AKP is now demanding a full recount of the nearly 10 million votes.
Erdogan also introduced the idea of a repeat of the Istanbul poll.
"No one has a right to say, 'I won' with a 13,000 to 14,000 vote difference," Erdogan said. "We made a promise. We said that we would protect the votes at ballot boxes, and we did so. After protecting the votes at the ballot box, we have continued to do the same in the ensuing process."
The prospect of a rerun of the vote drew scorn from opposition leaders.
"Renewing elections until the AK Party wins is what happens in African dictatorships. There are examples of it," said Good Party leader Meral Aksener.
With political tensions rising over the contested vote, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu put the onus on Turkey's Higher Electoral Board (YSK) to end the dispute.
The YSK administrates elections in Turkey and has the final say in determining results and decisions on recounts and reruns.
"Whatever they (AKP) have tried so far didn't change the results," Kilicdaroglu said. "The YSK judges have to behave independently and decide in accordance with the law. This is about the fate of our democracy."
The majority of the ruling YSK board is made up of Erdogan and government appointees. YSK decisions on sanctioning recounts in the aftermath of the local elections is already raising questions over its impartiality.
"Election monitoring body YSK, which ought to be independent and which will decide on this appeal (Istanbul vote), has thus far granted 86 percent of AKP's requests for recounts versus 12 percent of opposition CHP and 0 percent of opposition HDP (pro-Kurdish party)," tweeted Sonar Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program, in Washington.
Critics highlight the YSK's rejection of opposition parties' calls for recounts in the latest local elections, where the winning margin was in the hundreds or low thousands.
However, the YSK did reject AKP's calls for a full recount in the mayoral election in Ankara, which saw the CHP win control of the city after 25 years. In Istanbul, the board also rejected an appeal for a district mayoral election to be repeated.
Analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners said the entrance of Erdogan into the controversy over the Istanbul vote changes the political landscape.
"While the YSK, has shown some backbone during this ordeal (Istanbul vote), let's not fool ourselves. No mortal or legal entity in Turkey has the guts to withstand Erdogan's wrath," he said.
Critics warn overturning the Istanbul vote or repeating the election could end many Turks' belief in the Turkish democratic system. Political scientist Cengiz Aktar said for Erdogan, that would be politically costly.
"Elections, on a general or local level or even referenda are extremely important to the regime as it constitutes the sole source of legitimacy for this regime. Therefore elections are crucial for the regime."
Erdogan's favorite rebuttal of criticism domestically and internationally is his repeated electoral success. Yesilada suggests the president's AKP defeats in Istanbul and Ankara could have been an opportunity.
"The victories in Istanbul and Ankara by opposition parties should have aroused respect for Turkey's resilient democracy and earned him (Erdogan) credit from the West for gracefully conceding defeat," Yesilada said. The alternative means Turkey is exiting the democratic fraternity and possibly another market quake to devastate the economy.
The Turkish lira fell sharply Monday following Erdogan's comments. Economists warn the currency remains vulnerable to political risk, with the economy recession and concerns over the scale of private sector debt.
Observers suggest the political and the economic risks will be considerable in any protracted struggle for Istanbul, Erdogan's base for 25 years, where he could be calculating that such risks more than outweighed the cost of losing control of his hometown city.
"He (Erdogan) was elected mayor in 1994. He knows how economically meaningful Istanbul is for his party, the AKP. It has extensively benefited from Istanbul," said Aktar. "In that sense, it's (Istanbul) extremely important and symbolic, and that is why the opposition will never be allowed to win in Istanbul."