Will Turkey’s November election be free and fair?

Will Turkey’s November election be free and fair?
By Kivanc Dundar in Istanbul October 29, 2015

Turkey will go to the polls on November 1 for what is seen as the country’s most important election in decades, which will decide and shape the future of the 78mn nation.

The country has been beset by political deadlock, terror attacks, a government crackdown on opposition media, deepening social polarisation, a slowing economy and renewed clashes with Kurdish insurgents since June, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in parliament for the first time since taking power in 2002.

Erdogan knows his AKP needs a clear victory this time. If the AKP is somehow forced to share power in the event of yet another hung parliament, the opposition will move to curb his powers or more perilously could reopen the corruption investigations from 2013 that targeted Erdogan’s inner circle.

As pressure on the opposition media has mounted, people are now questioning the government’s motives and asking whether the November election can really be deemed free and fair?

Some even speculate that the government might try to rig the election result. This would be a bold move, but is it actually possible?

In defence of the ballot boxes

Even before the June parliamentary election, some critics of the government had been sounding alarming bells, arguing that Erdogan and the AKP would do whatever it takes – including vote-rigging – to ensure victory, because the stakes were too high for them to risk failure.

A survey carried out by Koc University ahead of the June election found that less than half of Turks (48%) believed it would be fair, down from 70% in 2007 and 57% in 2011. And they have many reasons to be distrustful.

During the municipality elections in 2014, on the very night when officials started to count the votes, more than 30 cities, reportedly, experienced power outages for hours. The reason for the massive power cut: a tiny cat. “I’m not joking my friends, a cat walked into a transformer unit that caused the power outages,” the energy minister told reporters.

People did not laugh, but decided to organise.

Alarmed by talk of vote-rigging and concerned about autocratic cats interfering with the election process, a group of citizens launched a platform called Oy ve Otesi (Vote and Beyond) to prevent possible election fraud. Some 55,000 volunteers, organised and trained by Oy ve Otesi, signed up to guard the ballot boxes in the June election.

Apparently these efforts paid off; there were no widely reported cases of election fraud. And in the end, the AKP’s share of the vote did not increase but actually declined. However, this meant the country plunged into the current political deadlock which, according to opinion polls, will not be broken in this November election.

Perhaps, though, the clean election happened simply because the idea of vote-rigging had never crossed AKP leaders’ minds; they just sat back and waited in agony for the results to come in.

But once again rumours about vote-rigging have started to circulate on social media ahead of the November 1 election. Oy ve Otesi now recruits 1,000 new volunteers every day, up from 200 in the run-up to the June election.

A whistle-blower, who tweets under the alias Fuat Avni and has a credible track record in predicting government operations well before they actually happen, recently suggested that the AKP might have some plans for this election.

The whistle-blower claimed that software has been developed that will be integrated into the state’s digital vote-counting system to help manipulate the results in favour of the ruling party. In a coordinated effort, the state news agency Anadolu will report manipulated results from ballot stations across the country to make the official results look reliable.

However, the problem with this claim is that the private news agency Cihan will also be reporting the results as soon as the votes start to be counted. So any discrepancies, if too large, between Cihan’s counts and those of Anadolu will be very visible and suspicious.

The Kurdish party HDP and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) also have their own network of election observers, working in the field to keep an eye on the ballot boxes.

But even here rumours have started swirling: Cihan is owned by a company linked to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a previous ally of Erdogan now turned arch enemy. Some say the authorities could go after it and silence Cihan just before the election.

Press freedom under threat

On October 28, the police stormed the headquarters of the TV channels Bugun and Kanalturk, owned by the Koza-Ipek Group associated with Gulen.

Prosecutors appointed a panel of trustees to manage the Koza companies on October 27, following an investigation into Koza-Ipek over its alleged links to the so-called “Fetullahist Terrorist Organisation”. Koza-Ipek is accused of providing financial support to the Gulenist network.

Dozens of people gathered in front of the broadcasters Bugun and Kanalturk on October 28 in solidarity with the media group. Brawls broke out when the government-appointed trustees tried to enter the media companies’ offices. The riot police dispersed the crowd with water cannon and tear gas. After the police and trustees had forced their way into the offices, they pulled the plug on the broadcasts by Bugun and Kanalturk and screens went blank.

Erdogan accuses Gulen and his followers of infiltrating the country’s police force, media and judiciary, establishing what he calls “a parallel state” to overthrow him and the AKP government. Gulen denies the charge.

The offices of the liberal newspaper Hurriyet, owned by Dogan Group, were also attacked by AKP supporters twice in September. One of the newspaper’s well-known columnists was assaulted; he had his nose and ribs broken.  

Dogan was handed a tax fine of TRY4.9bn (€1.5bn) in 2009. The conglomerate later sold two of its newspapers, Milliyet and Vatan, in 2011.

Turkey has never been a particularly easy place for journalists, but the current level of oppression on the country’s media is unprecedented – nothing like this was seen even during the times of military rule, say some veteran journalists.

Turkey is one of the world's top jailers of journalists, according to the Committee to Project Journalists. Turkey is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Freedom Index, down from its 98th place (out of 161 countries) in 2006.

Level playing field

Maybe the government won’t rig the election, but it is difficult to say whether the parties are competing on a level playing field.

Some major TV channels and newspapers are owned by business groups close to Erdogan and they do not let opposition parties reach out to AKP supporters who mostly watch and read pro-government media outlets.

Erdogan and the AKP leaders, on the other hand, dominate the airwaves. Since the election campaign began, Erdogan has enjoyed 29 hours of airtime on the state-run broadcaster TRT over 25 days, while the CHP got five hours, nationalist MHP 70 minutes and the HDP just 18 minutes.

So what will happen if, as is likely, the election results in another hung parliament? 

Erdogan could agree to remain above party politics and let the AKP form a coalition government with one of the opposition parties, but given his ambitions to turn the country into a executive presidential system this is not likely, at least at the moment.

More worryingly, the president could call another election if he sees the AKP’s votes has not risen enough to form a government alone, hoping that another round of elections would finally bring the desired victory after people get fed up with all the uncertainty and vote for his party out of desperation.

But the president should know that this cycle of elections cannot go on endlessly.