How to fix a Turkish election

There has long been an elephant in the room when we talk about the Turkish elections. Turkey has a long democratic history and a strong democratic culture, and up until the 2014 local elections, few believed that a government would resort to vote-rigging. 

The blatant nature of the rigging that night, however, smashed to pieces any goodwill Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government had built up until that time. In Ankara, at least, it was clear that ministers had joined forces with certain high-ranking civil servants to shut down the usual workings of the electoral system and force a win for the incumbent, Melih Gökçek.

The national trauma experienced that night can barely be overestimated. Thanks to the last vestiges of a free press, television viewers learnt that the vote counting in Ankara – which had decisively shifted in favour of Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Mansur Yavaş – had been stopped at the very places where the opposition were most likely to win, and that the official explanation was that a cat had gotten into an electrical transformer and short-circuited it. Gökçek had arrived at the Supreme Electoral Board offices, it turned out, and security forces evacuated the central counting area in the CHP stronghold of Yenimahalle for Interior Minister Efkan Ala to personally interfere with the votes. In Çankaya, one of Turkey’s largest districts with a population of over 900,000 and another area dominated by the CHP, there were also reports of police forcing the evacuation of the counting stations.

When the results resumed updating an hour later, viewers saw the 3,000-vote gap between the Ankara candidates update to 20,000 within three minutes. Some of the remaining parts of Çankaya “voted” in excess of 55 percent for the AKP – an event roughly as implausible as California going red in a U.S. presidential election without any prior warning. It would not be until days later that the Ankara vote was formally declared in favour of Gökçek, although the government claimed the victory as soon as possible.

The opposition were truly unready for this turn of events. They probably assumed that the AKP were popular enough that they could weather a blow like losing Ankara without too much trouble, even if the AKP’s roots lay in the Islamist claim to running municipal services better, more cheaply, and with less corruption in Turkey’s metropolises. Moreover, there had been no examples of vote-rigging on this scale in Turkish history – even the immensely unfair election of 1946 had not required a wholesale intervention at the ballot box level. Hence, in every election and referendum since 2014 there has been a deep mistrust in the electoral process widely shared throughout the opposition. This mistrust did not abate after the 2017 referendum, in which the government-controlled Supreme Electoral Council made the decision after voting ended to remove an important safeguard against fraud to accept ballots Turkey-wide even if they or the envelopes they were placed in had not been stamped by the adjudicating ballot station committee.

Under new electoral rules made in March this year, those safeguards will not be in place at all this election, and neither will the former prohibition on police and gendarmes entering polling stations without the permission of those in charge of them.

So what would be the best way to fix this election, given that the opposition appears dangerously close to overturning the government’s presidential and parliamentary majority?

Well, a Supreme Electoral Council decision made earlier this year in the name of security moved ballot boxes up to 20 kilometres away from 144,000 predominantly Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) voters in the Kurdish-majority southeast. More last-minute inconveniences of that type, especially in places where people opposing the government are struggling to pay for petrol, would keep the vote down – and an upsurge in the arrests of HDP activists, as we saw before the 2017 referendum, couldn’t hurt either. Alternatively, as we have seen in previous elections, posting military forces near the entrance to the polls could create an atmosphere much less obliging for Kurdish opposition voters. 

In the Anatolian Turkish heartlands, some polling stations, despite recent efforts by opposition parties and independent groups, may only have electoral monitors from the AKP or their Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allies and the civil servants appointed for the job. In that case, where all present are tacitly agreed, they can top up the ballot boxes when no-one is looking. Particularly contested in last year’s close referendum were southern provinces like Urfa where there is a significant Kurdish population but which are much more strongly under AKP control. After all, a significant amount of ballot-rigging can be done in a decentralised manner. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested to a meeting of Istanbul party officials in a secretly-recorded speech last week that “our party machine must work very differently upon the HDP. I will not say this in public. You will mark them tightly. Their remaining below the (10 percent) electoral threshold means that we are in a better position.”

“If we ensure this, our work will be finished in Istanbul before we have begun. We must not go through another June 7,” he added, in reference to the first election of 2015, in which his party failed to secure a majority in parliament and the Kurdish party overcame the threshold for the first time.

It is difficult to understand what Erdoğan here wishes his officials to do if they are to interpret it within the bounds of the law. However, some of them might misunderstand that they are being asked to take any opportunity whatsoever to increase the AKP’s vote at the expense of the HDP. In that case, and especially if Erdoğan has been delivering similar speeches to officials in places with less tight citizen oversight than Istanbul, there is a real danger that some of them will attempt to act on it. They – and provincial governors reporting to Erdoğan, civil servants and party activists – will certainly expect to be absolved of any consequences if they do so.

There is also the possibility of an attempt at another form of sleight of hand. With the Supreme Electoral Council in the government’s pocket and only the state news agency left reporting the results from the raw data (and even that in a political way largely sealed off from the main newsroom), the government can write an election result to order that will take a long time and a superhuman effort to check manually. Thankfully, Turkey is one of the few places in the world where this has begun happening – groups like Oy ve Ötesi and Sandık Gücü collect photographs of each of the ballot box vote tallies and input the data by hand to figure out where mistakes have been made. But these groups also report regular attempts to infiltrate and undermine them by government supporters, and if their networks – human or computer – were taken out at a crucial post-vote moment the government could declare a fait accompli. And if the data going into them has been manipulated by the time the ballot boxes reach the count, then this effort will have been for nothing.

President Erdoğan and many of his top party and government officials have a lot riding on the elections on June 24. If they gamble and lose both the presidency and the parliament, there will almost certainly be attempts by some of their rivals to try them over years of corruption, even if main opposition candidate Muharrem İnce has done his best to dampen the enthusiasm to do so. If they flee the country, then it is very difficult to say where they would find safe haven – in a besieged Qatar, perhaps, or in Malaysia, although the latter country has shown that it is not averse to turning its judiciary on powerful men. The crony-construction sector that has grown up around Erdoğan and taken up a greater and greater share of Turkey’s GDP over recent years may be partially saved from bankruptcy, but the great majority will surely fall in tatters. So even if they had foreseen an honest win when calling the snap elections in April, the government will surely be tempted to find other ways to keep their power in June.

The new presidential electoral system does however give Erdoğan a last chance. If he manages to keep the presidency while losing parliament, he can dissolve parliament and force new elections by resigning the presidency. Of course, allowing himself to be put in that position of weakness could leave officials less pliable and his supporters less enthusiastic the second time around, as well as leaving him with only one of the two five-year terms permitted to a serving president on paper. But it does give him the possibility of another roll of the dice should he hang on to power only by his fingertips.

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