LOCAL ELECTIONS in Turkey about five weeks ago offered encouraging signs that the country’s democracy was still alive. Opposition candidates won mayoral races in several of the most important cities, including Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, which is Turkey’s largest city and the political base of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The results suggested that pluralism was reemerging in Turkish politics and that Mr. Erdogan, who has ruthlessly consolidated power in recent years, would be obliged to allow more space for it.
Instead, Mr. Erdogan has moved to reverse the democratic opening — and, with it, the hopes that his authoritarianism could be contained. On Monday, responding to an appeal from the ruling party, Turkey’s election board, whose members are dependent on the party for their jobs, ordered a new election in Istanbul. It did so even though the narrow victory of opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu in the March 31 vote was confirmed by a recount and he had already taken office. The ruling depended on a technicality: that not all the polling station officials were government employees.
Turks who have fought Mr. Erdogan’s attacks on independent media and civil society now have a new loss to mourn: Never before has a Turkish government refused to accept the results of an election. They must hope that Mr. Erdogan’s strong-arm move backfires and that he again loses Istanbul when the new vote is held next month. Fortunately, there is reason to believe that may happen. The president’s appeal of the election results was controversial even inside his party, where a rift has been growing between the clique around him and those who favor democratic practices.
Opposition leaders, who united behind Mr. Imamoglu in an attempt to defeat the ruling party, rightly decided to participate in the new election despite the election board’s questionable ruling. Mr. Imamoglu, for his part, has offered a refreshing contrast to the polarizing president, stressing his wish to serve all of Istanbul’s 16 million inhabitants.
The material stakes of the revote will be high. Istanbul’s mayor controls a budget of $10 billion that Mr. Erdogan’s party has used to fund patronage networks and friendly media. If the new election is seen as unfair, Turkey’s already battered economy will take another hit as more foreign investors flee a country where the rule of law can’t be assured.
The political importance of the outcome will matter even more. It will tell Turkey’s NATO partners, along with the rest of the world, whether the country can still be distinguished from neighboring Central Asian despotisms. Turkey’s Western friends should spend the next few weeks telling Mr. Erdogan that Istanbul’s election must be free and fair — and that he must accept the result.