ANKARA: Turkish riot police Tuesday deployed water cannon against protesters who claimed vote-rigging in weekend local polls in which the Islamic-rooted party of Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared sweeping victories.
About 2,000 supporters of the main secular opposition party had massed outside the elections authority in the capital Ankara, chanting “Thief Tayyip!” and “Ankara, don’t sleep. Stand up for your vote!”
Police then unleashed water jets to disperse the vocal and passionate crowd — recalling the street clashes that started last June in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and kicked off months of political turmoil in the country.
The top spokesman for Erdogan’s party condemned the rally, saying on TV: “You cannot claim a victory that the people have not given to you by massing crowds in front of the election board.
“Everyone has a natural right to object but no-one can achieve anything by mobilising the crowds through social media and provoking them,” added Huseyin Celik of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Sunday’s municipal polls were seen as a referendum on the 11-year-rule of Erdogan, who is popular with many Turks for driving strong economic growth but has been accused of an increasingly authoritarian ruling style.
Turkey’s two biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, were the top prizes in the elections, in which Erdogan’s AKP declared sweeping wins, despite recent graft claims against the premier’s inner circle and an Internet clampdown.
Claims of election fraud have circulated on social media, including a photo which purportedly shows ballots in a garbage heap, and there have been complaints over power blackouts in some areas during the evening vote-count.
The race was especially symbolic in Ankara, the inland capital built by the secular founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who established the Republican People’s Party (CHP), now the main opposition group.
Pro-CHP demonstrators massed outside the Supreme Electoral Board building after Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek, in power for 20 years, had declared victory with a wafer-thin margin of about one percent.
The crowd chanted, “We are the soldiers of Ataturk”, a popular CHP slogan.
Protester Tulay Ozturk told AFP: “I believe the elections are marred by wrongdoing. That’s why I am here. I want fair elections.”
Gokcek dismissed his rivals’ claims, saying: “They want to stir up Turkey … They want to give the impression that democracy in Turkey is being crushed.”
In the tight race, Gokcek scored 44.79 percent against 43.77 percent for CHP candidate Mansur Yavas, according to the provisional results — a margin of about 30,000 votes in the city of five million.
Yavas wrote on Twitter that a recount “will reveal the truth” — the short message post itself defying an official ban on the social media site, which has been used to leak corruption claims against Erdogan’s allies.
In Istanbul the official AKP lead was much wider, at 48 to 41 percent, but the CHP candidate Mustafa Sarigul there also challenged the results.
Unless irregularities are addressed, he said, “this election, regardless of its outcome, will be etched in our history of democracy as contentious.”
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz meanwhile blamed most voting-day power outages on weather conditions and said: “Those who lost the elections should not use power cuts as an excuse for their defeat”.
In Ankara — where in some areas ballots were counted by candle-light — he blamed a cat that had slipped into a power transmission unit and presumably was electrocuted when it caused a short circuit.
“I am not joking, friends,” he said. “A cat walked into a transmission unit. That’s why there was a power cut. It’s not the first time this has happened.”
Trouble also flared in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, where the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) declared a ceasefire a year ago amid efforts to resolve a conflict that has claimed 40,000 lives in three decades.
In the town of Ceylanpinar, near the border with war-torn Syria, police fired tear gas and used water cannon against hundreds of supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).
The party had governed the district since 2004 but lost it to the AKP last weekend, amid claims BDP ballots were burned and dumpened onto a garbage heap.