Nick Ashdown
Dec 13 2017

Will the Turkish opposition be going into the next election blindfolded?

Turkey’s government is looking to force through legislation changing the way elections are conducted, moves that analysts said could undermine the credibility of crucial polls to be held by 2019 that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feels he must win.

Last month, two legal clauses governing the oversight of elections were introduced as part of a law on Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council, but then dropped from the final bill after an outcry from the public and opposition parties. However, Hürriyet reported on Monday that the two clauses had been reinserted verbatim into an upcoming “adjustments law” that the government is seeking to push through.

The winner of the next presidential election, due in the autumn of 2019, will exercise sweeping new executive powers approved in a referendum in April, though only by a narrow majority. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, have faced narrowing margins of victory in recent polls and also face local and parliamentary elections in 2019.

The first clause requires ballot box chairpersons to be appointed by the state alone. Currently, these are selected by the heads of the District Electoral Board (İSK) and political parties together. There are about 175,000 ballot box committees in Turkish national elections, each consisting of two civil servants, including the chairperson, and five representatives from political parties.

The second clause says that election observers would have to register to get cards from the İSK, obliging them to seek permission from the state to observe elections, whereas previously they only registered with political parties. For observers, this would mean the state could say who can and cannot observe elections, which is concerning since the state has been dominated by one political party for 15 years.

“It is difficult to look at these changes together and not conclude that the AKP is preparing the ground to steal the 2019 elections, if necessary,” Max Hoffman, associate director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress think-tank, said in an email.

“The amendments remove many of the remaining checks on outright electoral fraud.”

In practice, ballot box chairpersons have long been appointed by the state, said Kerem Gülay, a law professor and expert on Turkish elections at the University of Amsterdam, though political parties have the legal right to be part of the nomination process.

“It’s worrying on a general level, that yet another step away from democratic and political participation is formalised … but it’s not changing anything that doesn’t exist in practice anyway,” Gülay said.

The change to the rules over registering election observers is more worrying, he said. In the past, even the common practice of registering at the last minute was not a problem. These new requirements would make that impossible.

Observers play a crucial role in elections as the only people who can legally contest incidents of fraud.

“If you restrict access with yet another ‘ID requirement,’ even if the citizens around the ballot box take videos of fraud or appeal it, the vote cannot be overruled,” Gülay explained.

The pro-minorities Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in particular experienced difficulties during the April referendum with at least 170 ballot box committee chairpersons nominated by the party excluded due to their alleged “bad reputation”, and many its observers blocked, the party said.

“The referendum happened in unequal conditions and in an extraordinary environment where the opposition was oppressed,” HDP Vice Co-Chair responsible for electoral affairs Yurdusev Özsökmenler said in an email.

Özsökmenler said the army, police and other security services had pressured voters across the mainly Kurdish southeast where the armed forces, backed by Kurdish pro-government village guards militiamen, have fought a violent separatist campaign by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since 1984.

People arrive to vote at a polling station past Turkish special police personnel in Diyarbakir, Turkey, Nov 1, 2015. The snap poll is called after ruling AK Party founded by Erdoğan failed to retain its single-party majority in June. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov
People arrive to vote at a polling station past Turkish special police personnel in Diyarbakir, Turkey, Nov 1, 2015. The snap poll is called after ruling AK Party founded by Erdoğan failed to retain its single-party majority in June. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

“In many cities, especially in Diyarbakır, Van, Mardin, Muş, and Bitlis, there was heavy army, police, and special forces pressure during both campaigning and voting,” she said. “In some locations our voters were prohibited from voting no, because of threats from police commanders and village guard heads.”

Özsökmenler said she feared the proposed changes would make it nearly impossible for opposition parties to register observers.

The referendum, won by Erdoğan’s AKP with 51 percent of the vote, was mired by multiple allegations of misconduct and fraud, including a last minute decision from the Supreme Elections Council (YSK) to accept unstamped ballots.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent an observation mission, said in a report the referendum “did not live up to Council of Europe standards [and] the legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process.”

“I don’t recall any previous report that was so critical of elections in Turkey,” Gülay said.

That raises concerns about future elections in Turkey.

“In the municipal elections in 2014 and then again in the April 2017 referendum, we’ve seen that the opposition not only has to compete on an uneven playing field, but that the count cannot be assured,” Howard Eissenstat, a history professor at St. Lawrence University and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) said in an email.

The next election was crucial for Erdoğan, who will not be taking any chances, Eissenstat said.

“To me it boils down to this: Erdoğan would certainly prefer to win the elections without outright ballot rigging. But is he willing to lose? I don’t think so. The next election is existential for him. He will win it by hook or by crook,” he said.

Protesters hold a sign reading "No! The referendum should be cancelled" in Istanbul on April 23, 2017. Opposition party launched legal challenge against last-minute changes to voting rules that saw President Erdogan win expanded powers. AFP / Yasin Akgul
Protesters hold a sign reading "No! The referendum should be cancelled" in Istanbul on April 23, 2017. Opposition party launched legal challenge against last-minute changes to voting rules that saw President Erdogan win expanded powers. AFP / Yasin Akgul

Following the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the government embarked on massive and ongoing purges of the bureaucracy that have hit the electoral system hard.

These purges accelerated the AKP’s long-standing practice of inserting party loyalists into the bureaucracy. The judiciary, whose members hold key positions in Turkey’s voting apparatus, has been particularly affected.

The OSCE report pointed out that three YSK members and 221 lower-level election board chairpersons were replaced after being dismissed as judges following the abortive coup.

In presidential decrees issued after the coup attempt, nine Provincial Electoral Board chairpersons (of a total 81) were dismissed and two taken into custody, 143 İSK chairpersons (of 1,080) were fired and 67 taken into custody, and over 500 additional electoral board employees at all levels were also detained by police.

Gülay said the purges jeopardise the independence of institutions, including the YSK itself. The purges “are a signal to the rest that if you don’t play along, there are no rules to protect you. So why would a YSK member act independently? I don’t think they can,” he said.

The state appointments of ballot box chairpersons would also likely be vulnerable to partisanship.

Erdoğan, he said “is accumulating personal authority, so … people who aren’t sympathetic towards him or people he doesn’t really like don’t get these nominations,” Gülay said.

Gülay said the alarming outcome of the referendum was that for perhaps the first time in Turkey since the first free election in 1950, a large part of the population did not consider a national vote legitimate.

“They think that this was unjust and that their future was stolen. So how do Erdoğan and his people expect to have any sort of sustainable long-term presence unless they convince these people?” Gülay asked.

Eissenstat said that even most people who are against Erdoğan did not support the coup and want to see the president gone by democratic means, so legitimate elections remain their last hope.

“They may not like (Erdoğan), but they believe he can be – and should be – removed by the ballot. If they no longer believe that is possible, then they are out of options. They can flee abroad; the can accept perpetual domination; or they can seek to voice dissent outside of elections.”

Hoffman said Erdoğan supporters are also pro-democracy, and if they believed elections were fraudulent, it would hurt his support.

“Domestically, Erdoğan’s rhetoric – particularly since July 15 – is based on democracy and the people’s will, which he says he is protecting and carrying out. Large majorities of AKP voters (we just ran a poll asking this, among other things) support democracy – they just interpret Erdoğan as protecting rather than subverting (it),” Hoffman said.

“If credible evidence of meaningful voter fraud emerges, most AKP voters would likely dismiss it as ‘fake news’ and believe Erdoğan’s denials, but it would probably still erode support around the margins – and Erdoğan and the AKP are playing with thin margins.”