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Zülfikar Doğan
Dec 27 2018

AKP amendment casts shadow over March vote

The U.S. withdrawal from Syrian lands east of the River Euphrates and Turkey’s planned operation against the Syrian Kurdish forces they will leave behind stole the media spotlight over the past week.

Yet in the early hours of Saturday morning in a virtually empty parliament, deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) voted to ratify Turkey’s 2019 budget.

This week, the parliament will break for recess for the New Year holiday, but one amendment the AKP was desperate to push through parliament before the holiday was a mini-omnibus bill presented by the party’s parliamentary group head Mehmet Muş concerning Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK).

The bill extends the term period of the current six-member council and its chair, Sadi Güven, for another year until January 2020. That this will leave the same council in place for another election – the local elections this coming March – has led to whispers that the ruling party has something shady planned.

It was this council that contributed to a comprehensive amendment rushed through parliament last April, two months before the parliamentary and presidential elections in June 2018. The amendment was designed to work in favour of the AKP and its alliance partners, the MHP.

The same council also caused outrage among Turkey’s opposition on the day of the April 16, 2017, referendum on the country’s switch to an executive presidential system. As votes were being counted in the tight race, the YSK made the sudden announcement that they would accept votes that lacked a security stamp.

The “Yes” side won the referendum with 51.4 percent of the vote, ensuring the transfer of unprecedented powers to the winner of the 2018 presidential election. The tight margin of the victory led to heavy criticism from Turkey’s opposition of Sadi Güven, the man they said had swung the referendum by allowing the use of votes that were impossible to check.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), explicitly called the results of the referendum illegitimate, accusing the YSK of bowing to the AKP government with its decision and betraying the country’s democracy.

The amendments related to the June 2018 elections also allowed the use of unstamped ballot papers, drawing criticism from the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Their joint report published on Dec. 16 said the hasty and non-inclusive amendments to electoral law had been problematic and contrary to international norms, and had heightened risks to fairness and equality between political parties in the election.

The report advised the government to “reconsider the composition of the electoral commission,” reconsider the “extremely high” 10 percent electoral threshold to parliament, and “adopt legislative provisions ensuring respect for the obligation to stamp ballots as a safeguard of the validity of the poll”.

The report also criticised the presence of security forces in polling stations, urging regulators to “submit relocation of polling stations on security grounds to strict, clear, and objective parameters.”

The AKP, however, appears quite satisfied with the YSK’s performance despite all of that, and the extension of its term has evoked criticism from those who fear more of the same in the local elections next year.

One person who will be closely observing the council’s moves is Mansur Yavaş, who ran against AKP incumbent Melih Gökçek in the March 2014 local elections as the Republican People’s Party’s mayoral candidate for Ankara.

Yavaş experienced the YSK’s questionable practices firsthand, when he lost the capital city to Gökçek by a 0.9 percent margin after appearing to be in the lead.

There had been reports of interference in several districts during the election, and Yavaş demanded a recount. However, two months after the election, 550 ballot boxes holding around 150,000 votes had not been delivered to the electoral board in Ankara.

“Our right to contest the result ended on election night, but the ballot boxes still weren’t there. There’s legally nothing you can do about this, the YSK’s decisions are final. There are both criminal and negligent elements to this,” Yavaş said.

Yavaş will run again in Ankara next March, and this time he says his party will prepare a new system to increase security at polling stations.

The AKP government has justified its decision to extend the YSK’s term by saying experienced council members will be required with such a short time left before local elections.

Yet the amendment has caused dismay among opposition politicians, who are expected to come out in force against the YSK’s extended term during the last parliamentary group meetings on Tuesday.

One of those politicians is Gürsel Tekin, CHP deputy for Istanbul, who described the April 16 amendment as a move to steal the June elections.

“This (YSK) has made its mark. They stole democratic elections with their unconstitutional and illegal decision on April 16,” Tekin said in a social media post. “There’s no reason whatsoever to extend their term by a year. There are many moral and qualified people in this country who could do the role justice.”

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