Was the Turkish referendum vote rigged?

Was the Turkish referendum vote rigged?
By Ben Aris in Berlin April 17, 2017

Questions have been raised over the legitimacy of the historic April 16 referendum that according to preliminary results was narrowly won by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in what the opposition sees as a slide towards one-man rule. 

The opposition says that at least 1.5mn votes from a total of 55mn should be disallowed as they bore no stamp authenticating them. They also claim to have evidence of widespread ballot box stuffing and other abuses that skewed the vote in favour of Erdogan. If their objections are upheld and 1.5mn ballots are disallowed then that would be enough to reverse the result.

The Yes camp that included Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), won 25.16mn votes or 51.41%, giving it a wafer thin lead over the No camp which garnered 23.78mn or 48.59% of the votes, according to results quoted by state-run news agency Anadolu, with 99.97% of the ballots counted. 

The government has form on allegedly cheating in elections. As bne IntelliNews reported previously, Swedish assistant professor at the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE) Erik Meyersson did a statistical study of the voting patterns in the 2015 general election that defied polls and produced a win for the AKP. A drill down into the distribution of how votes were cast strongly suggested that the ballot had been tampered with, although the statistical methods available are not conclusive proof of cheating.

“Overall, this analysis shows evidence that would be consistent with widespread voting manipulation, not proof of it, both in terms of the change in the distribution of last as well as adjacent digits,” Meyersson concludes the paper. “The landslide victory by the AKP represents a remarkable comeback for a government that according to the overwhelming majority of polling companies looked set to repeat its June loss. Many are now pointing fingers at these pollsters (and analysts overall) asking how they could have been so wrong. But what if they weren’t?”

Meyersson says he may conduct a similar study into the referendum results, but the official and detailed statistics may not be available for another 10-12 days, and the election commission may also agree to a recount following the opposition claim of irregularities.

In the meantime Erdogan is adamant that the result should stand and even Meyersson was urging caution in the face of widespread claims of vote rigging.

“Let's not do this until there's concrete proof & a widespread occurrence of this kind of voting irregularities,” Meyersson Sadi Güven said in a statement on April 17 the day after the vote.

“In the most recent 2004 case where unsealed ballots were allowed to be counted, there were 145 of them. This time? >2 million,” Meyersson tweeted, highlighting just how controversial this decision has been.

Another quirk was the No vote won in Turkey’s biggest cities, which means that the Yes vote out performed in the rural areas, “and, crucially, where election monitoring is least likely,” commented Meyersson.

And there is plenty of cause for concern that ballot boxes could have been tampered with on their journey between local polling stations and regional election commission offices. There were plenty of election observers in the big cities, which mostly voted No, but as the vote counting drew towards a close one observer claims that around 3mn votes and thousands of ballot boxes disappeared from the YSK electronic feed.

“There are circa 174,000 ballots boxes in Turkey and over 58mn eligible voters. As seen here," tweeted Has Avrat, a blogger and photographer who was watching the official results come in. “Then mysteriously the live feeds updated to show 167,000 ballots boxes and only 55 million eligible voters… Three million eligible voters and some 7,000 ballot boxes disappeared from the YSK live feed.”

Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), has said it will challenge the results and demand a recount of up to 60% of votes due to alleged irregularities.

The CHP has not yet commented on allegations that ballot boxes “disappeared”. However, the party has received complaints from many regions that people had been unable to vote in privacy and said that some ballots were counted in secret, the party’s deputy chairman Bulent Tezcan said on April 17, Reuters reported.

The YSK decision to accept unstamped ballots was clearly against the law, he added.

Earlier on April 17, the head of the electoral board said ballots and envelopes provided to voters for the referendum were produced by the YSK and were valid, Hurriyet Daily News reported.

“At the moment it is impossible to determine how many such (unstamped) votes there are and how many were stamped later. This is why the only decision that will end the debate about the legitimacy (of the vote) and ease people's legal concerns is the annulment of this election by the YSK,” Tezcan said, according to Reuters.

All of these irregularities were enough to cause the European Commission (EC) to raise a warning flag in the evening of April 16 as the last vote tallies were coming in.

“We are awaiting the assessment of the OSCE/ODIHR International Observation Mission, also with regard to alleged irregularities,” the EC said in a statement. “The constitutional amendments, and especially their practical implementation, will be assessed in light of Turkey's obligations as a European Union candidate country and as a member of the Council of Europe… In view of the close referendum result and the far-reaching implications of the constitutional amendments, we also call on the Turkish authorities to seek the broadest possible national consensus in their implementation."