Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan late on June 24 declared victory in his country’s presidential election and said that the alliance between his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) had triumphed in the parliamentary contest. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was insisting into the evening that a huge number of votes were not yet counted and that the results so far indicated that the presidential race would go to a second round run-off on July 8. But by late evening, with Erdogan's victory given the official seal of approval by the High Electoral Board (YSK), it was only talking about continuing its democratic fight "whatever the result".
Polling day had already been marred by reports of widespread irregularities at polling stations.
Erdogan told a televised press conference: “The Turkish public has mandated me as president according to unofficial results. I hope nobody will damage democracy by casting a shadow on this election and its results to hide their failure.” Later, in a speech to his victorious supporters from the balcony of the AKP headquarters in Ankara, he pledged to “fight terroristic organisations”, and “to continue the fight to make the Syrian grounds freer”. He added that he was committed to increasing the “international prestige” of Turkey, saying: “Turkey has no moment to waste, we know that.”
At one point as the votes were added up, it looked like the AKP might lose its grip on parliament with the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) overcoming the 10%-of-votes threshold that will give it scores of seats. But, puzzlingly to many observers, AKP's ally, MHP, appears to have taken around 11% of votes, twice what it was scoring in the opinion polls. If verified, that will enable the AKP and MHP to control parliament as a ruling coalition.
Throughout the day, tension over the integrity of the elections built with wide discrepancies in the figures presented by the rolling results services of the state-run Anadolu Agency news agency and the network of independent monitors. By around 23:15 local time, the former gave Erdogan 52.62% of the vote with 96.95% of ballot papers counted, while the latter gave him 52.09% but—crucially—said just 74.6% of votes had been counted. The election winner needs 50%-plus-one-vote to win the presidential contest in the first round.
Muharrem Ince, the candidate for the leading opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the presidential contest, had called on citizens “to not abandon the ballot boxes” without signed results and had asked people to go to their district electoral committees to carry out monitoring. He also remarked on Twitter: “The era of winning elections by trickery and fraud is over.”
That might prove to be a case of wishful thinking, but in contrast to events after the official narrow victory in the constitutional referendum on introducing an executive presidency held in April 2017, when the opposition was seen to accept a defeat tainted by unstamped ballot papers rather meekly, Ince has run a vigorous campaign and it is still possible he will lead a determined effort to push back against reported electoral fraud.
The elections are probably the most crucial in Turkey’s modern history as they will usher in a new era in which the country will change from being a parliamentary republic to a presidential republic, led by an executive president with sweeping powers. The post of prime minister will be scrapped and parliament’s powers will be diluted. Erdogan referred to this prospect after voting in Istanbul, telling reporters” "Turkey is going through a democratic revolution with this election." In contrast, his critics warn that Turkey might actually be entering an authoritarian era of one-man rule.
Video footage of widespread alleged ballot box stuffing was posted on the internet as opposition supporters attempted to patrol polling stations. Such deception was made that much easier ahead of the elections when a law permitting unstamped ballots to be included in the counting was passed in parliament following angry exchanges that resulted in a brawl.
Ince, who has mounted an unexpectedly strong challenge to Erdogan in the later stages of the campaign, has been warning of voting irregularities and undue pressures on civil servants. Election council members should do their jobs without fear and “abide by the law”, he said.
Prior to polling day, Turkey's opposition parties and rights NGOs said that they planned to send more than half a million monitors and volunteers to voting sites across the country during the elections.
OSCE observers accused of supporting terrorist PKK
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) deployed 22 long-term and 350 short-term observers. On the eve of the elections, state media, including the Anadolu Agency, reported Turkish security sources as saying some OSCE observers planned to sow chaos in Turkey by creating a “shady perception” of the results, in what looked like an effort to discredit the observers prior to the vote.
Sources even apparently alleged that some OSCE observers openly support the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a listed terrorist organisation, and had “suggested organising wide-ranging protests to draw opposition groups to the streets after the election results become clear”.
One measure brought in for the elections—held under Turkey’s state of emergency which was introduced as far back as July 2016 after the failed coup and which has turned the country into the world’s biggest jailer of journalists—meant some Kurdish villagers had to walk a considerable distance to cast their ballots at polling stations, which according to the government, were relocated for security reasons. Kurdish voters generally seemed to make the effort to overcome the difficulty.
Voter turnout was put at an incredible 87% (87.19% in the presidential election, 87.04% in the parliamentary contest). This prompted Erdogan to remark that “some of the most developed countries have a turnout of only around 30%,” while adding that Turkey’s transition to an executive presidency system would take the country “beyond the level of contemporary civilisations”.
Growing allegations of election fraud are emerging from Sanliurfa, particularly the town of Suruc and nearby villages. These include attempts to stuff ballots, voters casting ballots on behalf of relatives and women, open voting and intimidation. Suruc was the scene of the only deadly incident in the run-up to the election, when four people were killed—local shop owners and the brother of a ruling party MP.
Social media carried multiple reports of unstamped ballots being found in booths or on the person of voters entering polling stations, which is illegal.
“An unstamped ballot that has a vote for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the presidential ballot has been found in the voting cabin at Istanbul’s Maltepe, Turgay Ciner School at ballot-box:1120, “ dokuz8 NEWS reported in a tweet.
“Ballot & envelope was found on a citizen in Ankara’s Mamak at Ege High School on ballot-box:1304. According to regulations, ballots & envelopes are given to citizens when they arrive at their ballot-box, before entering the cabin to cast their vote,” dokuz8 NEWS reported in another tweet.
“New: Four bags full of ballots found in a car which was stopped by the police in Suruç,” tweeted @agirecudi, one of several claiming that boxes of votes were already in polling stations before voters arrived.
However, following complaints from observers, the authorities said they would cancel some of these votes.
“A victory for all. After all the reports about ballot stuffing in #Suruc, it's being reported that all the ballot boxes that had been stuffed have been cancelled and rendered void on the insistence of the election observers,” tweeted Yvo Fitzherbert.
"If Erdogan wins, your phones will continue to be listened to... Fear will continue to reign," Ince told at least a million people gathered in Istanbul at a campaign rally on June 23. "If Ince wins, the courts will be independent." He also said that if elected, he would lift Turkey's state of emergency within 48 hours.
Erdogan accuses Ince—a former teacher and MP of 16 years—of lacking the skills to lead. "It's one thing to be a physics teacher, it's another thing to run a country," Erdogan said. "Being president needs experience."