Turkey election monitors say 'more needs to be done' to ensure freedom of expression

Local Elections in Istanbul

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's local elections on Sunday were competitive and gave citizens many options but took place in a "starkly polarised environment" where more needs to be done to ensure freedom of expression, a European group of observers said on Monday.

Turkey's opposition logged a thumping victory over President Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party (AKP) in the local polls, reasserting themselves as a political force. It marked the worst defeat for Erdogan and the AKP in their more than two decades in power, and could signal a change in the country's divided political landscape.

"Election day was overall calm and organised in a professional manner, with a high turnout showing a strong commitment of citizens to democratic processes," David Eray, the head of the observation mission carried out by the Council of Europe, told a press conference in Ankara.

"While we welcome the competitive nature of these elections, that voters were able to choose between many options, we can only note 2024 local elections in Turkey took place in a starkly polarised environment and were only partially conducive to local democracy," deputy head of delegation Vladimir Prebilic said.

Some of the Council of Europe's long-standing concerns over Turkey's election practices remain unaddressed, Prebilic added.

"In line with the Council of Europe principles of democracy, rule of law, and human rights, more needs to be done to ensure a political and media environment where there is a genuine freedom of expression and reasonable and well implemented framework overseen by independent judiciary," he said.

Critics say Erdogan's government has muzzled dissent, eroded human rights and brought the judiciary and other state institutions under its sway, an accusation denied by officials.

Ahead of the election, pro-government media give blanket coverage to Erdogan's daily rallies, with coverage of opposition campaigning limited.

The observation mission was comprised of 26 observers from 16 European countries, who watched voting procedures in more than 140 polling stations, including in the largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara.

(Reporting by Huseyin Hayatsever; Editing by Ece Toksabay and Alexandra Hudson)