Deniz Öz
Apr 06 2019

Controversial recounts endanger Turkish electoral board’s integrity

he local elections took place in Turkey last Sunday night, but thanks to persistent challenges by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the votes in key districts and municipalities have still not officially been tallied.

The preliminary count showed the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s mayoral candidate for Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, beat his AKP rival, Binali Yıldırım by over 27,000 votes.

Yet the ruling party has refused to accept the count, and has demanded that all 319,558 invalid votes cast in the city are counted again.

Electoral boards in areas including the central Beyoğlu district rejected the appeal, calling it baseless and lacking evidence. Yet other districts across the city began the recounts, and by Thursday night the decision was taken to count them all.

The CHP took legal action to stop the counts in the first seven districts to implement them, citing district election rules, and the counts were temporarily frozen. But on April 2, the Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) convened for an extraordinary meeting, and ruled that the counts must continue.

This was in stark contrast to 2014, when the CHP’s candidate for Ankara lost a highly contentious election to the AKP incumbent, Melih Gökçek. Although the difference was almost as narrow, the YSK rejected his appeal as baseless, and no recount took place.

The elections in 2014 and last week are not the only times the state-run electoral monitor has passed controversial decisions under the direction of its current president, Sadi Güven.

The YSK under Güven’s watch has twice passed decisions removing the requirement for ballot papers to have their security seal in order to be counted.

The first time came in April 2017, when Turks voted in a constitutional referendum to transition to an executive presidential system, granting the president – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – vastly enhanced powers. For many this was the point of no return before the country entered one-man rule under Erdoğan.

As the votes were being tallied, the YSK suddenly announced it would accept the unsealed ballot papers. Erdoğan won the vote by a slim 51.41 percent to 48.59 percent.

The second came in the lead-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections last year, when the YSK formalised the practice of accepting unsealed ballots.

And, while the YSK made security precautions less stringent across the country, it also cited security concerns to move ballot boxes in the predominantly Kurdish south east, where the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party has the highest concentration of votes. The party estimates that 270,000 voters were affected by the moves.

 People wait in front of the Supreme Election council (YSK) building surrounded by barriers and under the guard of police officers on April 2, 2019 in Istanbul. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP
People wait in front of the Supreme Election council (YSK) building surrounded by barriers and under the guard of police officers on April 2, 2019 in Istanbul. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP

Another move that seemed designed to reduce the opposition vote, given the many thousands in prison on political charges, came before the March 31 local elections. The YSK ruled that prisoners held in locations away from their constituencies would not be allowed to vote from the prisons they were held in. 

The YSK took yet another controversial step by ruling that 365 ballot papers would be printed for each ballot box, meaning there was a surplus of 13 million in addition to those printed for the 57 million registered voters at the time.

The AKP extended the tenure of the electoral board for another year in an omnibus bill last December, allowing it to oversee the March 31 local elections – even though the constitution states that elections should not take place within a year of a YSK term extension.

It is thus little surprise that many view the YSK as partisan under Sadi Güven, a figure who took the role after serving in various high appointments by the AKP, including as the Justice Ministry’s deputy undersecretary.

Güven’s stunning revelation after a 13-hour freeze in updates on voting by the state-run Anadolu Agency that the agency had not received its figures from the YSK and that the opposition candidate was ahead in Istanbul was a forced move, said Ömer Faruk Eminağaoğlu, a former chair of the Association of Judges and Prosecutors.

“Up to now, while it should have been the electoral boards and YSK releasing election results, they have always come from Anadolu Agency. This time, there was a little more control over the ballot boxes, and when (observers) revealed contradictions in Anadolu’s reports, the YKS was forced to step in whether it wanted to or not,” Eminağaoğlu said.

“Sadi Güven should have made his statement much earlier, but he didn’t. As a result, he allowed public perceptions to be influenced. This has created a dimension where it is as if Anadolu is declaring the election results,” he said.

This, he said, had gone against the YSK’s own mission statement of ensuring fair elections without government interference, “making clear from the YSK’s own statements how far we are from the law and constitutional rule and how unfairly the elections have been administered.”

As for the ongoing recounts, the decision to go ahead with them without the endorsement of the district electoral boards ıs completely unjustified, said CHP deputy leader and Istanbul member of parliament Oğuz Kaan Salıcı.

“The boards up to now have always sought justifications for a recount,” he said. “But this time they’re able to make their decisions and order the counts without any justification.”

CHP members safeguarding votes in one electoral board centre in Istanbul - Photo: Mahmut Tanal
CHP members safeguarding votes in one electoral board centre in Istanbul - Photo: Mahmut Tanal

Another CHP deputy, Mahmut Tanal, has pointed to the requirement by electoral law that all challenges to initial counts are backed up by concrete evidence. 

“If no party representative issues a challenge to the disqualified votes when the electoral boards are adding up the official vote reports, and if they have signed the reports, then they can’t make an application to appeal against the count later,” he said.

“The challenges demanding recounts of ballots at the moment are based on abstract arguments. There’s been no concrete justification, no evidence shown,” he said.

Yet the AKP has used its monopoly on power to demand the recounts go ahead, despite the initial refusal of some district electoral councils, said Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a CHP deputy for Istanbul. 

“The YSK had shown the whole country that it had lost its objectivity in previous elections, too, but its decision in favour of the ruling party this time has only strengthened that opinion,” he said.

Meanwhile, in provinces in the predominantly Kurdish east of Turkey, where the AKP won some major victories over the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the YSK has stringently denied HDP requests for recounts.

A striking example was in the Malazgirt district in Muş province, where the ruling party beat the HDP by just three votes. In the Tatvan district in Van province, the YSK also rejected the HDP’s appeal, even though a recount of the 3,000 invalid votes could easily have changed the result.

Yet in provinces where the AKP lost, including Siirt in the southeast of Turkey, the recounts are going ahead with no objections from the electoral board. 

Another CHP deputy, Mahmut Tanal, has pointed to the requirement by electoral law that all challenges to initial counts are backed up by concrete evidence. 

“If no party representative issues a challenge to the disqualified votes when the electoral boards are adding up the official vote reports, and if they have signed the reports, then they can’t make an application to appeal against the count later,” he said.

“The challenges demanding recounts of ballots at the moment are based on abstract arguments. There’s been no concrete justification, no evidence shown,” he said.

Yet the AKP has used its monopoly on power to demand the recounts go ahead, despite the initial refusal of some district electoral councils, said Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a CHP deputy for Istanbul. 

“The YSK had shown the whole country that it had lost its objectivity in previous elections, too, but its decision in favour of the ruling party this time has only strengthened that opinion,” he said.

Meanwhile, in provinces in the predominantly Kurdish east of Turkey, where the AKP won some major victories over the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the YSK has stringently denied HDP requests for recounts.

A striking example was in the Malazgirt district in Muş province, where the ruling party beat the HDP by just three votes. In the Tatvan district in Van province, the YSK also rejected the HDP’s appeal, even though a recount of the 3,000 invalid votes could easily have changed the result.

Yet in provinces where the AKP lost, including Siirt in the southeast of Turkey, the recounts are going ahead with no objections from the electoral board. 

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