Turkey’s snap elections: a level playing field?

There are serious concerns whether Turkey’s June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections will be free and fair. 

While the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe rated Turkey’s previous parliamentary election in 2015 as fair, it was already influenced by the partisan behaviour of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Though under the constitutional rules at the time, he was not allowed to campaign and had to remain non-partisan, he rallied extensively for his ruling Justice Development Party (AKP).

The polls also came at a time when state security forces were fighting Kurdish militants in many cities of the mainly Kurdish southeast and interfering in the electoral process by relocating polling stations away from conflict-affected areas, exploiting state resources and dominating state media coverage. 

Similarly, last year’s constitutional referendum, won narrowly by the government with 51 percent of the vote, was held under a state of emergency and accompanied by disputes over ballots. Past form indicates Erdoğan might take further steps to ensure victory in the June elections, to be held in an environment similar to that of the referendum, which, according to the European observers, “lacked the due democratic setting”.

About 90 percent of Turkey’s media is now under the control of the AKP and its supporters after the purchase of the country’s last independent media group by a company close to the government.

Under new regulations, the government also controls the distribution of independent newspapers and can ban international publications, independent broadcasters, and all internet sites it chooses. In short, Turkey’s current media landscape neither provides impartial coverage, nor guarantees political parties equal access to the media. On the contrary, inequalities in press coverage of political campaigns remain and have even been exacerbated. The results of the June 24 elections will also only be announced by pro-government news agencies.

Parliament, dominated by the AKP, passed a new election law in March that allows security forces to be posted near polling stations, a possibly intimidating presence for many voters, especially in Kurdish areas. The new law also allows for unstamped ballot papers to be counted as valid. This has raised fears of ballot stuffing as it is almost impossible to verify the voter registry before the snap polls. The counting of unstamped ballots was one of the issues that clouded the 2017 referendum result. The law also allows the local electoral board to redraw the electoral district at its discretion, introducing the potential for significant gerrymandering.

The government says these changes are necessary to secure the vote in Turkey’s southeast from the influence of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984, but the election law and the newly appointed Supreme Electoral Board - make it difficult to provide adequate checks and monitoring, thus undermining an important safeguard.

Holding elections under emergency law allows the government to retain considerable legislative powers to pass laws without the approval of parliament, and for Erdoğan to rule by decree during the campaign season. More fundamentally, the state of emergency restricts the rights to freedom of assembly, preventing the opposition from fully and actively campaigning. Government opponents face serious obstacles should they test the limits of this restriction, as opposition rallies are likely to be harassed.

Holding elections under a state of emergency is set to worsen Turkey’s already dire relations with the West. Germany, the Netherlands and Austria have decided to prohibit Turkish politicians from campaigning among Turks in their countries. Last month, the European Commission expressed its dismay in its Progress Report on Turkey that stated “fundamental rights have been considerably curtailed under the state of emergency and pursuant to the decrees issued under it”. It said "Turkey should lift the state of emergency without delay".

Despite being held under uneven level playing field, recent elections saw a break in the AKP’s electoral fortunes. First, when the party’s spell was broken in 2015 legislative elections after thirteen years in power. Second, during the 2017’s narrowly passed constitutional referendum held under a state of emergency accompanied with disputes over ballots.

The next election will be held under similar if not worse conditions, and within a political context that has created an unfair and uneven campaign season. Yet the AKP faces a rocky path towards victory, as the military intervention in Syria remains without an exit plan, and a growing financial crisis of Erdoğan’s making, which could become his Achilles heel going into elections.

The question remains whether the next elections will be free and fair. In light of the Turkey’s recent political developments, this is highly unlikely which will inevitably undermine the countries perilous path towards democracy. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.