Poll observers raise concerns over curbs on freedom in Turkey

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A European group observing local elections in Turkey criticized curbs on free expression on Monday, a day after voters appeared to have dealt President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party defeats in major cities.

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The head of the observer mission from the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities said people should be able to express opinions without fear of government reprisal.

“I am afraid we... are not fully convinced that Turkey currently has the free and fair electoral environment which is necessary for genuinely democratic elections in line with European values and principles,” Andrew Dawson told reporters in Ankara.

“But we do take the fact that many parties have been successful as a positive sign of Turkey’s democratic resilience.”

The foreign ministry said the comments on civil liberties were “out of place” and beyond the group’s remit, though Ankara would maintain a constructive approach towards election observers in the future.

Erdogan’s AK Party (AKP) was on track on Monday to lose control of Istanbul and Ankara, according to official vote tallies and Turkish broadcasters, though the Islamist-rooted party promised appeals that could delay the final results for days.

Dawson said “there could be cause for concern” over any further delays but it was too soon to tell.

Despite daily rallies and overwhelmingly supportive media coverage, the president appears to have failed to assuage concerns among many voters over Turkey’s tip toward economic recession after a currency crisis last year.

Last year, after Erdogan announced snap parliamentary and presidential elections for June, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Monitoring Committee voiced concern over their freedom and fairness and recommended they be postponed.

Turkey’s then-prime minister told the European rights body “to mind its own business”.

Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; editing by John Stonestreet