Calls for Turkish election boycott grow after new law passed

Demands for a boycott of parliamentary and presidential polls due next year have risen in Turkey since parliament passed changes to election laws last week that opposition parties say could open the way to fraud.

The new law allows the High Electoral Board to merge electoral districts and move ballot boxes to other districts. Ballots not stamped by the local electoral board will still be admissible and members of the security forces will be allowed into polling stations.

Opposition parties say the changes would open the way to ballot rigging during the counting process and allow ballot boxes to be removed from opposition strongholds. 

“Fair and secure elections were destroyed last night. Either we will watch it or we will consider options of boycotting and/or withdrawing from parliament till the minimum necessary conditions for a real election are ensured,” said Selin Sayek-Böke, a member of parliament from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) on Twitter, the morning after the new law was passed.

Her statement has since been retweeted 5,200 times and received almost 2,000 mentions, mostly supporting her.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, is facing a key test in the polls, to be held by November next year, after which Turkey’s shift from a parliamentary system to a presidency with executive powers will officially begin.

But her party leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu immediately responded. “Why do you talk about a boycott, we will win the elections. Everybody knows the strength of those who want democracy. Demands for democracy can only be expressed through polls,” he said. 

Since Kılıçdaroğlu became party leader in 2010, the CHP has lost three parliamentary elections, two constitutional referendums and a presidential election. The CHP has not won a general election since 1977.

Other opposition politicians attempted to calm supporters.

CHP MP, Mehmet Bekaroğlu, said in a tweet: “Yes, the anti-democracy alliance will do everything it can do to win, there are concerns about electoral security, but no need to panic. This time everyone is very determined, people will not only vote, they are going to lie in front of the ballot boxes if needed to make sure that their votes are correctly counted.”

But other CHP deputies talked of the possibility of a boycott. 

In an interview with the Gazete Duvar newspaper, MP İlhan Cihaner said: “There are two options in front of us. Either a fair and secure election, or neither a fair, nor a secure election. Within this scale, there should be a point at which we may decide to reject the elections totally,” he said. 

Supporters of the idea launched the hashtag #boykot.

Social media comments indicated apparent election fatigue and anger at the opposition parties for admitting the results of last year’s referendum on giving the presidency executive powers after some had pointed to evidence of possible fraud.

“I won’t participate in the legitimisation of a system by trickery, a system against which I voted … The response that should have been given during the night of the referendum, cannot be given now by elections. The CHP should leave parliament and should organise a boycott,” said twitter user named Pürenyo.

Others pointed to the arrest and imprisonment of the two former co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish opposition party as well as a number of its parliamentary deputies and elected mayors as evidence of what they said was a lack of a democratic process. 

Taylan Kulaçoğlu tweeted: “They smashed the party which received 7 million votes in the last election, their co-leaders are still in prison, even people who slightly oppose something find themselves in prison, nearly all journalists, lawyers, prosecutors, judges are being imprisoned, the media, the platforms, the supreme court of elections, electronic voting registration system, they all belong to them”.

The ongoing state of emergency, introduced after the failed 2016, also gives the government sweeping powers to rule by decree.

Noting that she worked during the last two elections and in the referendum to protect ballot boxes, another twitter user said: “I am saying this clearly. You live in dreams. You cannot have elections under emergency rule, a boycott is the only way”.

“A boycott is necessary! … In an authoritarian regime, elections institutionalise fascism,” read another reaction on twitter. 

Opposition and independent media commentators generally opposed a boycott.

Journalist Kadri Gürsel, recently released from prison, wrote in the Cumhuriyet newspaper: “Calls for a boycott only mean being a disruptor of democracy”. The new law, Gürsel said, does not legitimise voting fraud, but does make it easier. The opposition has a responsibility to support democracy by making voting fraud more difficult, he said.

If a boycott were to go ahead, but not reach a threshold level, write academic and journalist Ahmet Insel in Cumhuriyet, it would not weaken the ruling party’s legitimacy, but might increase it. “Low voter turnout will be forgotten in a short time … The reality of an even stronger party in power will be the only result,” he said.