Turks' faith in the ballot box falters

For decades, Turkey's elections have been considered largely free and fair. But irregularities in last week's provincial and local elections have undermined one of the remaining trusted institutions.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Officials count votes at a polling station in Ankara, Turkey, March 30, 2014. Defeated candidates have challenged the outcome of the March 30 local elections, accusations range from vote rigging to decisions by the country's electoral boards that favored AKP candidates.

Allegations of voter fraud on a scale not seen in decades have fueled concerns that one of Turkey's few untarnished democratic institutions has lost its independence at a time when the government is facing rock-bottom levels of public trust.

Defeated candidates have challenged the outcome of the March 30 local elections in 16 of the country’s 81 provinces and in more than 100 districts in light of irregularities that allegedly favor the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The defeated challenger for mayor of Ankara, the capital, yesterday asked for the results to be annulled and the election re-run. 

Accusations range from vote rigging to decisions by the country’s electoral boards that favored AKP candidates.

“[Until now] elections remained the one institution that was unsullied,” says Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “Now we will have lost trust in this one institution as well and I find this disturbing and worrying.”

'Third world country'

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP won many contests by large margins in much of the country, but there were tight contests in some battleground provinces. Among the most fiercely contested was Ankara, Turkey’s second largest city and recently a hotbed of social unrest.

Melih Gokcek, Ankara’s mayor of the past 20 years, was reelected by just over 32,000 votes – less than 1 percent. Mansur Yavas, the candidate for the main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), said systematic rigging cheated him of a win.

“Turkey’s image has been transformed into that of a third world country,” Mr. Yavas said at a press conference yesterday, when he announced his application to the country’s Supreme Electoral Board to annul the mayoral result.

As in several other provinces where opposition candidates lost by narrow margins, Ankara’s local election board rejected Yavas’ application for a recount. But in many of the areas where the AKP lost narrowly, multiple recounts have been allowed.

Yavas’s campaign yesterday claimed that more than half of Ankara’s ballot box return sheets show signs of irregularities and manipulation that favored Mr. Gokcek, the AKP incumbent.

“We feel that the election we won has been stolen by an organized effort throughout Ankara through various kinds of manipulation,” Suat Kiniklioglu, Yavas’ campaign manager, told The Christian Science Monitor.

Gokcek held his own press conference yesterday and denied the allegations, implying the Yavas campaign was a sore loser.

“They are trying to keep their supporters on their feet and while doing this they are provoking people,” he told reporters. “It’s a part of democracy to accept when you’re defeated.”

'Systematic' fraud

With the national government beset by corruption allegations, the atmosphere in the lead up to the March 30 vote was feverish and tense. Mr. Erdogan framed the vote as a referendum on his 12-year premiership.

The corruption allegations and the high political stakes may have heightened the perception that the vote was unfair, says Ozel. “Many people feared fraud so is it that fear that makes us see more of it or was there more of it?”

Most observers stress that the nationwide percentages are broadly in line with predictions. But the claims were bolstered by the work of independent election monitors. The group "140journos," a citizens’ journalism collective, has used crowd sourcing to analyze more than 2,000 ballot return sheets, mainly from Ankara and Istanbul. They discovered some 250 have irregularities that mainly favor the AKP.

“There’s a systematic pattern,” says Engin Onder, one of 140journos’ founders. “If the closest opposition candidate gets 450 votes, the officials will write it in as 45. Votes are being miscalculated in the AKP’s favor.”

Erik Meyersson, a Turkey specialist at the Stockholm School of Economics, says that in battlegrounds including Istanbul and Ankara, invalidated ballots were more commonly votes for the parties running against the AKP. 

In a blog post, he stressed his findings do not in themselves constitute proof of fraud, but added: “Until a valid explanation for these results is presented that does not include voter fraud, it is difficult to imagine what else could be going on.” 

Grassroots pushback

In Ankara, the Yavas campaign’s suspicions were aroused late on election night. Kiniklioglu says that the campaign received a call from the CHP’s official observer at the High Election Council offices in the early hours of the morning of March 31 saying Yavas was 27,000 votes ahead – and that the only remaining neighborhoods to be counted were two known CHP strongholds.

“Suddenly new ballot boxes emerged from conservative neighborhoods at four in the morning that overturned that lead and put Melih Gokcek ahead,” Kiniklioglu says.

Before the elections, Ankara had been seen as a possible win for the CHP. Yavas ran in 2009 mayoral polls as a member of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which came third in those elections. As the CHP candidate, he was expected to bring a strong opposition vote that could overturn Gokcek’s slender majority. Recent polls gave Gokcek a slight lead, but Kiniklioglu says the CHP’s own polling gave Yavas a six-point lead two days ahead of the election. 

Turkey’s High Election Council has pledged to fairly consider any irregularities in Ankara and other races around the country. However, its decisions will inevitably be seen as political in the current atmosphere. 

With some Turks' trust in the electoral institutions shattered, the reported irregularities may encourage the growth of grassroots monitoring movements. Onder, of 140journos, says his organization is working on a software platform that will allow for a dramatic expansion in monitoring.

Turkey is due to hold presidential elections in August. By then 140journos hopes to be able to perform crowd-sourced analysis of some 30,000 ballot return sheets, equivalent to almost the entirety of Istanbul, a city with 10 million voters.

As Turkey gears up for another election, which will then be then be followed by a general election in June next year, there is little prospect of the deep political social divisions in the country healing soon.

“The tension will not decrease in the country,” says Candar. “It will remain as it is or even increase.”

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