Turkish electoral authorities on Wednesday began recounting votes from Istanbul districts after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AKP challenged tallies showing an opposition candidate narrowly won a weekend local election.
The AKP won most votes nationwide in Sunday's municipal ballot, but results also showed the party lost the capital Ankara and the country's economic hub Istanbul in one of its worst setbacks in a decade and a half in power.
AKP officials on Tuesday filed a challenge with electoral authorities saying they had found irregularities in ballots in Ankara and Istanbul.
"The district branches of the electoral board in Istanbul decided to recount the ballots in eight districts after the appeals yesterday," Supreme Election Board chief Sadi Guven told reporters.
He said some of the district branches had already started rechecking ballots, most of which were votes that had been rejected as invalid.
AKP officials had said there was a huge discrepancy between ballots cast at polling stations and data sent to election authorities.
Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, was a key election prize for Erdogan and he presented former premier and loyalist Binali Yildirim to run as the party candidate for mayor.
Erdogan, himself a former Istanbul mayor, had campaigned hard in the city. But the ruling party was stung by the economy with Turkey in recession for the first time in a decade and inflation in double digits.
Istanbul was a tight race and both Yildirim and the opposition CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu declared victory when tallies showed them in a dead heat.
Electoral authorities on Monday said Imamoglu was ahead by 28,000 votes with nearly all ballot boxes tallied, prompting AKP officials to challenge the result.
"The world is watching us, watching the results of our city's election," Imamoglu told reporters on Wednesday, asking that he be handed his mandate as soon as possible.
"I say clearly: Don't let Turkey's credibility be destroyed by 3 or 4 people acting like they are kids who had their toys taken away from them."
But the AKP was fighting back. Deputy chairman Ali Ihsan Yavuz claimed the difference had now slipped to less than 20,000 votes between Imamoglu and Yildirim.
Imamoglu had 48.79 percent of the votes while Yildirim had 48.52 percent, Anadolu news agency reported on Tuesday, citing preliminary results.
It reported close to 300,000 votes had been annulled in Istanbul voting on election day.
A loss in Istanbul would be especially sensitive for Erdogan, who grew up in the city's working-class Kasimpasa neighbourhood, and liked to tell AKP rank-and-file that victory in the city was like winning Turkey.
Electoral 'coup' claim
Asked about the AKP's challenge on Tuesday, a US State Department spokesman urged parties to accept election results.
"I would say that free and fair elections are essential to any democracy and this means acceptance of legitimate election results are essential. And we expect nothing less from Turkey," deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said in a briefing.
Turkey's presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun responded, urging "all parties, including foreign governments, to respect the legal process and refrain from taking any steps that may be construed as meddling in Turkey's internal affairs," Anadolu reported.
Ties between NATO allies United States and Turkey have been frayed recently by several differences, including Ankara's purchase of a Russian missile system, a deal for US-made F-35 fighters and disagreements over US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria's war.
Some pro-government newspapers on Wednesday branded the Istanbul defeat an as electoral "coup" similar to the failed coup Erdogan survived in 2016. That bid was blamed by Turkish officials on a US-based Muslim preacher, Fethullah Gulen.
"An Istanbul coup has been staged in the March 31 elections," wrote Yeni Safak pro-government newspaper columnist Ibrahim Karagul, calling for a new vote.
"A coup has been staged through the elections, through the ballot boxes."