You may have noticed some very odd Turkish pre-election stories making a big splash in the global news media’s short-attention-span 24-hour news cycle before disappearing as fast as they arrived. The tale of the 165-year-old first-time voter found on the electoral roll perhaps? Or the single apartment apparently home to 1,000 registered voters? All very amusing, but their appearance and rapid disappearance beg two rather important questions.
Firstly, is Turkey’s so-called democracy by now so compromised that observers shrug off such worth-a-giggle goings-on with a “Well, of course, it’s Turkey we’re talking about here after all”? And secondly, are these ‘funny old world’ tales symptoms of a pervasive, obscured and systematic attempt to engineer an election result and proceed with the destruction of a democracy?
The stories broke just as Turkey’s political adversaries prepared to step up new year campaigning for the March 31 local elections, likely to be held in a recessionary economic environment in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has to acknowledge that its credit-fuelled boom has bust.
“More than 200 voters live in the same apartment in Bingol, a city in eastern Anatolia. That's either one big happy family or something does not add up,” Deutsche Welle reported on January 17, adding: “Recent days have seen voters registered with addresses at stables, construction sites, and empty or nonexistent buildings. One apartment was reported listed for 1,000 voters. [Main opposition Republican People’s Party] CHP members said they found voters registered on the fifth floor of a four-floor apartment building in Istanbul.”
“Political parties in Turkey are crying foul after thousands of unlikely voters appeared on the electoral roll. Among the oddities are many first-time voters over 100 years old—and one aged 165,” the BBC reported on January 21, adding: “The supposed [165-year-old] voter Ayse Ekici would have been born under the reign of Sultan Abdulmecid of the Ottoman Empire.”
Adiguzel does the math
Onursal Adiguzel—the CHP deputy head who prepared a livestream election results monitoring system that collapsed on the evening of last year’s June 24 snap parliamentary and presidential polls—determined that a total of 6,389 voters over the age of 100 had been identified. Adiguzel, who never has provided a satisfactory explanation as to what went wrong with his monitoring—he has blamed data failures attributed to the other opposition parties—might do well to reflect that if the imaginary Mrs Ekici was 65 years-old rather than 165, the number of voters older than 100 he detected would have been 6,388. Who can seriously say how many rogue voter registrations there might be out there?
Dramatic rises in the number of registered voters have been, meanwhile, observed in many districts. The highest rise of an incredible 95% was detected in Orta, a town in the Central Anatolian province of Cankiri.
Former interior minister Meral Aksener’s Iyi (Good) Party has objected to around 126,000 voter records, according to Burcu Akcaru, a board member of the party.
Pointing to the sheer scale of the figures, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has proposed forming a parliamentary commission to investigate anomalies including the instance of 1,108 people registered to a single apartment in the southeastern city of Hakkari. The party has also applied to re-register tens of thousands of voters whose records were deleted, MP Meral Danis Bestas said.
“We are the biggest victims here”
The AKP, as you might expect, has a rather different take on matters. “The opposition parties are trying to create the perception that we are organising this [scenario producing electoral irregularities],” Recep Ozel, the AKP representative on the High Electoral Board (YSK) and the party deputy head responsible for election affairs, told Reuters on January 18, adding: “We are the biggest victims here”.
Ozel did not elaborate on why, rather than complaining to the media, the AKP has not directly brought its complaint to Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, Erdogan’s hitman in the domestic war against terrorism and the head of the ministry which prepares the voter lists.
Erdogan is another who claims he is a real victim of electoral malfeasance. The president, who has ruled the country since 2002 and before that held sway over Istanbul from 1994, is a victim of everything. Emotional manipulation—as perpetual victims he and his followers are always being cheated by someone or something—has never been less than at the heart of his populist rhetoric but the main driver behind his longlasting success in keeping his voter base consolidated is a well-performing pyramid-shaped fund distribution mechanism, pre-election treats and all.
A total of 1.5mn voters in the country of 81mn have apparently changed their district since the snap polls last June and, Erdogan claimed last week, around half a million AKP members could not find their names on voter lists. He also did not explain why he had not pursued the issue with his interior minister rather than complaining to the crowds.
Where might those half a million AKP members have been distributed to, one ponders. It would be a tragedy for parliament’s dominant party if they should turn up in municipalities where safe majorities make them entirely superfluous!
“It is the Interior Ministry’s responsibility to make sure every citizen can vote freely. As part of this, we see election safety falling into three categories: election rallies, voting, and ballot counting,” Soylu offered on January 20.
You can in fact make a parlour game of applying Soylu’s categorisation to the AKP campaign season realities now always seen in Turkey—polarisation, the sudden need to step up military operations against Kurdish “terrorist” organisations, amendments to election law, shifts in voter registrations, generosity in the pre-election economy, and so on. On voting day, there are always widespread incidents of CHP representatives being physically kicked and intimidated. And during the ballot counting, state-run news agency Anadolu always releases the final results before the tallies are completed—and the CHP leadership approves the results whatever their voters’ reactions.
But all of this is just a rather limited snapshot of some of what goes on: for more details on the AKP’s election practices, the OSCE reports are available for all past elections.
Can he lose?
Given the realities of Turkey’s democracy on the ground—and the great strengthening of his powers that Erdogan enjoyed when he became his country’s first executive president last summer under referendum-approved (don’t go there) constitutional changes that did away with the post of prime minister and enfeebled the parliament—the neutral observer must wonder whether it is in fact possible for the country’s leader to lose an election.
Erdogan’s presidential republic of Turkey ranks at 110th of 167 countries on the Democracy Index 2018 published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The EIU sees the country as under a “hybrid regime”, not even positioning it as a flawed democracy given what it perceives as one-man rule. Iraq, Ivory Coast and Uganda each have higher scores for their electoral process and pluralism compared to Erdogan’s Turkey. Still, one could think of a far ruder term than the EIU has plumped for.
“Unless the opposition overcomes its divisions, it will struggle to mount a serious challenge,” the London-based Centre for Turkey Studies (CEFTUS) said on December 6 in a pre-local election briefing.
The Kurdish conflict divides the opposition although Erdogan holds “peace” talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) whenever he wants. However, the CHP is not allowed to be seen around the HDP while the nationalist Iyi Party has a fraction of the backing enjoyed by the ultranationalist MHP, the ally that props up the AKP in parliament.
“Local elections in #Turkey on March 31. Time for #Erdogan to start another war to distract Turkish voters from his mismanagement of the economy. Killing #Kurds is a winning political strategy which galvanizes Erdogan's base,” David L. Phillips of Columbia University said on December 14 in a tweet.
Send in the trustee
Of course, defeating Erdogan in a local poll is not always a guarantee of taking power. A total of 96 HDP municipalities are currently headed by trustees appointed by the government, according to latest figures provided by HDP co-head Sezai Temelli in November.
“If the ones plagued with terror win elections, we appoint trustees [after March 31],” Erdogan said back in October.
Erdogan has also pushed some of his own municipality chiefs to resign. It is hard to talk about a constitutional rule in Turkey. Erdogan acts like a walking constitution.
“According to Article 94 of the Constitution, political activities cannot be performed [by the Speaker of the Parliament]. We are not doing any political activity. An election is not a political activity,” Binali Yildirim, the AKP’s candidate for the mayor’s post in Istanbul, yet to resign his job as parliamentary speaker, said on January 10, Bianet reported.
“There is a written constitution in Turkey but the governing authority do not obey this constitution… What should be done against this… society should say stop this… Who will tackle with this? This is also important. Media, radio, TV stations, print media, internet media will do it. Second, bar associations will do it… Third, there are NGOs on behalf of the law… Fourth, other NGOs…,” CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, blithely told journalists on January 17, Gokcer Tahincioglu of T24 reported.
Kilicdaroglu, who has lost a record number of elections as CHP leader since 2010, did not delve into what the main opposition leader’s business is besides providing a notarisation service for controversial election results.
Sometimes dismissed as “Erdogan’s notary”, Kilicdaroglu is yet to say anything about whether he will this time have a plan in response to AKP supporters taking to the streets with machine guns before election day vote-counting ends. He is busy, perhaps, with how he will distribute seats in Izmir, one city traditionally held by his party.
One controversial amendment to electoral law has extended the terms in office granted to YSK members, Deutsche Welle reported on January 3. The YSK indulges in the most fascinating interpretations of what is and is not allowed, such as the inclusion of unstamped ballots in results (allowed). Sometimes, it appears to act as a legislating body. Again: more information is available in those OSCE reports.
In the capital Ankara, AKP candidate Mehmet Ozhaseki has been appointing new officials to the municipality even before the election has taken place, Saygi Ozturk wrote on December 28 in his column for daily Sozcu.
“Turkey has walked an upward path over the last 16 years and will continue that rise… But there are traps lying ahead of us again. Take a look at the events we've faced in the last five or six years. Which of them could be the work of minds thinking of this country and the nation's interests? Look at the Gezi protests of 2013 or FETO's [Fethullah Terror Organisation’s) coup attempt in 2016," Erdogan said on January 19 during an election rally in Samsun.
“Turkey is a textbook example of democratic deconstruction legitimised at the ballot box. It is a doleful story and one that unfortunately travels well,” Rashmee Roshan Lall wrote on January 20 for The Arab Weekly.
“The presidential government system puts an end to the use of executive authority by a collective body (parliament) and allows the exercise of executive power by a person who is elected directly by the people to serve for five consecutive years. In the new system, for five years, the president will directly or indirectly, determine and execute all public policies that are of concern to society, from security to foreign policy, education and health, and will follow their implementations,” Mehmed Zahid Sobaci, Nebi Mis and Ozer Koseoglu wrote in July in an article explaining the Turkish-type presidential system for pro-Erdogan think-tank SETA.