Turkey’s election board in pocket of ruling party - opposition

As the Republic of Turkey moves towards its 100th anniversary in October 2023, its politics are dangerously polarised at a time when the country should be celebrating its unity.

This past Sunday marked the centennial of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s decision, upon arriving in Samsun, to defy British orders and instead form a national resistance army that fought in the War of Independence and ultimately led to the founding of the Republic of Turkey.

Yet Sunday’s celebrations failed to highlight the sort of unity achieved by Atatürk. The main cause of the deepening rift is control of Istanbul, which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) refused to concede after losing the mayoral election on March 31.

A notable absence from AKP leader and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s May 19 celebrations was the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest party in the June 2018 parliamentary election.

Nearly 6 million people voted for the HDP last June, as the party took 67 seats in parliament. But the AKP and its alliance partners, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), view the HDP as equal to a terrorist organisation, and exclude it from state functions and official programmes.

The ruling People’s Alliance has taken every effort to draw links between the HDP and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. But the party is widely popular among Kurds, Turkey’s largest minority, representing some 20 percent of the population, whose grandparents also fought and died in Turkey’s independence struggle.

The leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been subject to his share of slander, too, since Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK) decided earlier this month to rerun the Istanbul mayoral vote, which was likely the most meaningful of all CHP victories in the March 31 local elections.

The council’s decision has been widely criticised, since it only cancelled the one crucial vote won by the CHP out of four cast in the same envelope and certified by the same committee. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu voiced strong condemnation of the seven judges who voted for the rerun, calling them a “gang”.

Since then he has been the target of insults and threats by AKP officials and pro-government media outlets, which have accused his party of electoral fraud. Erdoğan has even suggested lifting Kılıçdaroğlu’s parliamentary immunity and putting him on trial for his insult to the YSK judges.

Nevertheless, the CHP leader attended the official centennial ceremony in Samsun, as did MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli – but only at the last minute, after the opposition nationalist Good Party leader Meral Akşener pulled out of the event.

Akşener, a past rival of Bahçeli’s for MHP leadership, broke away from the party to form the new centre-right nationalist party in 2015 with others from her former party and the CHP.

The strife, distrust and enmity among Turkey’s political leaders is spurring greater animosity within Turkish society, bringing conflicts to the fore 100 years after the great unifying events of the Independence War.

One of the main culprits for this has been the ruling People’s Alliance, which based its electoral campaign for the local elections on the idea that Turkey was fighting for survival and the opposing CHP and Good Party alliance were in league with the country’s enemies.

Now the parties are facing each other once again for the rerun in Istanbul, which thanks to this kind of rhetoric has taken on massive significance for all sides.

The CHP maintains that the electoral council only cancelled the vote under pressure from the AKP. Erdoğan’s party retorts that the council uncovered compelling evidence to support its decision.

Yet the AKP’s acquisition – despite data protection and personal privacy laws – of detailed information on balloting committee chairs has raised serious questions. The information is said to include ID and social security numbers as well as family and work details.

Crucially, the YSK’s decision to rerun the election was based on a significant number of those chairs not meeting recently introduced regulation stating they must be public servants. But since this background information on the chairs has never been made public or shared with political parties, how was the AKP able to appeal on these grounds?

Similarly, in its appeal the AKP included information on mentally impaired and convicted citizens who had been restricted from voting. Again, this information is not shared with political parties, leading many to believe the AKP must have taken it from the interior, justice and health ministries to use as evidence.

In response, CHP lawyers have launched legal action against the AKP for breach of personal information.

But before that legal process has even begun, the AKP has already put in play yet more personal information – this time the names and addresses of the 1.5 million Istanbul residents who did not vote on March 31. This data will allow the ruling party to target individual voters, giving it a massive advantage over the opposition, which despite its protests has no access to this information.

That the AKP was able to use this data as evidence in the first place indicates that institutions that are legally obliged to protect personal information have passed it covertly to the ruling party. The YSK should have instead investigated how the data was obtained and possibly launched legal action against the AKP.

That it did not and instead accepted the protected private information from the AKP as evidence could have troubling ramifications, legal experts warn. The YSK is a top legal body whose decisions cannot be appealed. Thus, the council’s decision could be used as a precedent for future cases on data protection.

The opposition believes that the AKP’s appointment of Mehmet Özhaseki, its unsuccessful candidate in the Ankara mayoral election, as the Istanbul election coordinator, shows the ruling party had prior knowledge that the election would be rerun. The YSK convened to make its decision on the Istanbul election two days later.

Two weeks after that decision was reached, the YSK has still not published a detailed justification. This, Kılıçdaroğlu and other opposition leaders say, indicates that the council is trying to create a justification after making its decision. Kılıçdaroğlu says AKP legal experts have been enlisted to assist in the task.

On Saturday, Erdoğan said the YSK would publish its decision on Monday – yet another hint that the ruling party has been receiving tipoffs from the council. By Monday afternoon, the YSK had announced a one day daily.

Since the AKP has gone from talking about irregularities in the vote to now saying that votes were stolen, many are now wondering whether such claims will appear in the YSK document.

With the AKP using the claim of stolen votes as the basis for its June 23 campaign, the party may have leaned on the election board to support its rhetoric once again.

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

© Ahval English

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