Oliver Wright
May 30 2018

Electoral fraud in Turkey - far from the madding crowd

If polls are to be believed, the outcome of Turkey’s June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections appears increasingly uncertain, but any optimism opposition parties are feeling must be tempered by fear and uncertainty over concerns President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may try to subvert the democratic process to gain the legitimacy he needs.

After 16 years in power, faith in Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been shaken recently by economic troubles reflected in an alarming drop in the value of the lira and inflation that remains stubbornly above 10 percent. Fractious opposition parties have also put aside their differences to present a united front against the AKP.

Given that defeat at the polls may open the way to prosecution and perhaps jail for Erdoğan and his allies, it is possible the president may even refuse to accept election results that do not go his way. In such circumstances he may mobilise supporters in much the same may as he called them out onto the streets to face down the July 2016 coup attempt.

Erdoğan “would prefer to win the vote democratically, as this would grant him the greatest degree of legitimacy. But given the stakes, and his own rhetoric of martyrdom, loyalty, and a nation besieged, it is an open question as to whether he would be willing to lose if the electorate voted against him,” wrote Howard Eissenstaat, a non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy and associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University.

But such actions would drive a horse and cart through Erdoğan’s frequently repeated democratic pretensions. Thus such tactics, if employed following a rejection by voters, would be a last resort.

It is more likely that Erdoğan would seek to retain power by subverting the democratic process rather than simply rejecting an unfavourable outcome.

It is widely accepted that the environment in which the elections are being held is, like other recent elections in Turkey, neither free nor fair. Given the authorities’ tolerance of this state of affairs there is little reason to believe they would not also contemplate vote rigging to ensure Erdoğan retains power. Such tactics represent less of a threat to order and stability than accurately publishing and then refusing to accept unfavourable ballot box counts.

Whilst it might be difficult to rig the vote in much of western Turkey, even with recent changes to electoral law that seem designed to facilitate just such practices, it is a different matter in Turkey’s troubled southeast.

Here there is much less effective oversight of the ballot, providing ample opportunity for fraud. Both anecdotal evidence and statistical analysis of ballot box returns from the region imply widespread fraud both in the second parliamentary election of 2015 and in last year’s referendum on the shift to a presidential system.

The stakes this time around are even higher. So, assuming earlier reports of fraud are accurate, there is every reason to suppose they will be refined and repeated. Rigging the vote in the southeast does not appeal merely because it is easier to implement than elsewhere in the country.

In previous elections, a significant factor in Erdoğan’s success lay in his to ability to attract votes from Turkey’s Kurds, concentrated in country’s southeast. Since 2015 though, Erdoğan’s sway over this mass of voters has diminished.

The breakdown of peace talks between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984, have not enhanced Erdoğan’s reputation in the region. Neither have Turkey’s subsequent security operations in the southeast, nor its offensives against Kurdish forces in Syria.

The same goes for treatment of the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which attracted widespread support in the region in the 2015 parliamentary elections, but has seen scores of its elected officials since jailed.

In both the June and November 2015 polls, the HDP gained more than the 10 percent of the national vote necessary to take up seats in parliament. If the HDP were to fail to pass the 10- percent threshold this time around, the AKP might expect to pick up an extra 30 seats by coming second place in many southeastern constituencies.

As his support among Kurds wanes, Erdoğan has sought to bolster his backing from Turkish nationalists, adopting rhetoric increasingly hostile to Kurds. The president has formed an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which has been drawn closer to the government following the abandonment of peace talks with the PKK.

Erdoğan evidently calculated that by securing nationalist support he could replace diminishing support from Turkey’s Kurds. But it has not turned that way, with MHP supporters abandoning the party in droves for the newly formed Good Party, led by dissident former MHP parliamentarian Meral Akşener, who is hostile to Erdoğan.

The electoral maths therefore appears unfavourable to Erdoğan. His nationalistic rhetoric is anathema to many Kurds. But he needs their votes. By rigging the vote in the southeast he would sidestep this problem and also, by disenfranchising Kurds, gain favour with Turkish nationalists, and others, who view the rise of Kurdish influence in Turkish politics as an acute threat to the state.

So, the relative ease of rigging the vote in the southeast, its ideological appeal to certain circles and its likely effectiveness, coupled with the Turkish government’s track record in recent elections, imply that large scale vote rigging is not just a possible but a likely scenario on June 24.

The consequences of any electoral results that return Erdoğan to power will therefore depend, to a large extent, on the perceptions of the Turkish opposition. Should allegations of vote rigging be plausibly deniable, then Erdoğan would likely be able to continue much as before. But should the evidence be obvious, widespread and egregious, then trouble would be brewing. Not only would the government need to employ even more draconian measures than those it currently uses to control the flow of information; it may need to call its supporters out onto the streets, not to overturn unfavourable election results, but to “restore democratic order” and to ensure official election results, however rigged they may be, are respected.

Opposition parties face a difficult task in addressing concerns about the integrity of the vote. Both the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good Party have little presence in Turkey’s southeast and so lack the muscle to effectively monitor events there. The southeast is, by contrast, the HDP’s stronghold. But the party has been so demonised by the Turkish government that it will find it difficult to either prevent ballot box irregularities or to hold the government accountable for any that occur.

What might help is for the CHP and the Good Party to collaborate with the HDP in monitoring the vote in the southeast. This is not impossible. Despite the gaping differences, particularly between the nationalist flavoured Good Party and the HDP, minimising fraud is in all three opposition parties’ interests. Any co-operation need not extend further than monitoring the ballot as this may have a deterrent effect.