Turkey Elections: Campaign approaches climax with gunshots, fears of  fraud

IZMIR, Turkey — With less than 96 hours to the ballot boxes opening, Turkey’s election drama is in full swing — with gunshots, warnings of online censorship and election rigging, mobilization of volunteers, and a standoff between Turkey’s Interior Ministry and Supreme Elections Board. 

Turkey’s electoral watchdog, which often comes under the opposition’s fire for favoring the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has rejected the Interior Ministry’s request for information on the location of ballot boxes, their numbers, and the number of voters at each ballot box.  

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said he wanted the information for a new online election monitoring system at his ministry ahead of the high-stake polls on May 14.  

In a two-page written answer seen by Al-Monitor, the board claimed for itself the constitutional duty to monitor election results and deal with any claims of irregularities. The Security and Emergency Coordination Center of the Presidency, where Soylu wants to upload the results, “has no electoral role,” the statement said. 

According to the local press, Soylu then ordered police to get the ballot box results to upload them with the Interior Ministry — causing more anger. “They can only take them after the results are made public,” said a board member to Al-Monitor on Wednesday. 

“Why do you need them — to establish an alternative election center?” Engin Altay, a senior member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), stormed at Soylu from independent SzcTV.  

With presidential polls neck and neck between incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, many pundits inside and outside Turkey have raised concern that the government, which has tight control over media, as well as the judiciary and electoral boards, may engage in electoral fraud. 

But according to Hurcan Asli Aksoy, the deputy head of the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies at Berlin-based think tank SWP,  the paper-based Turkish electoral system, with party representatives at every ballot box and civil society observers, has “relative security.” 

But this does not mean that the ruling AKP has not rigged elections before, she said in a policy sheet published today. “There have been serious concerns over the integrity of certain elections,” she said, citing 2014, when state-run Anadolu Agency falsely announced landslide AKP victories early on, leading disgruntled opposition observers to abandon the ballot boxes without retrieving the election reports.  

Aksoy maintained that as long as the opposition succeeds in appointing observers to the electoral boards — thereby collecting results quickly and efficiently, and then sharing the data with the public — it will be very difficult for the government to steal an election it has lost.  

She also underlined the role of civil society groups which can reliably assess the integrity of the election results. 

Elections volunteers mobilized 

“We are a bunch of crazy, driven women who are working 15 hours a day,” Leyla Keskiner, a local coordinator of Turkey Volunteers, told Al-Monitor. The mostly female civic group of recruiters, lawyers, and call center workers is “working around the clock to ensure that we have eyes on every ballot box in the country and that every observer we place is fully equipped to deal with the legal challenges.”  

Keskiner, a political scientist, coordinates volunteers at Salihli, in Manisa province on the Aegean. Manisa, where AKP led in the 2018 elections, has 1,226 volunteers to deal with 1,190 schools where ballot boxes are placed. In Turkey, they claim that they have 100,000 volunteers. 

“It would be great if we could have an observer at every ballot box, but at least we will have one at every school. We have most of Manisa covered, except a few small districts.” 

Ahu Sun, the secretary-general of Oy ve Otesi (“Vote and Beyond”), told Al-Monitor that they currently have 70,000 volunteers across Turkey compared to the 46,000 they had in 2015.  The group was formed in 2014, and unlike Turkey Volunteers, says it is nonpartisan.  

“We train all our volunteers on what’s going to happen during the day; we instruct them on the electoral legislation and we try to prepare them psychologically about the election day, because it will be tense,”  the group’s chair, Ertim Orkun, said at a conference at the European Parliament on Turkish elections last month. “We gather data throughout the day and ask our volunteers to take a photograph of the ballot box result. We use an OCR technology to digitalize the data and send it to our system.” 

International groups keep watch 

A 33-member delegation of observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the pan-European rights group, will also come to Turkey on Friday. A press statement from COE announced that the delegation, accompanied by a group of independent legal experts, will meet with the presidential candidates and the political party leaders, the heads of the Supreme Electoral Council and Radio and Television Supreme Council, and journalists and civil society representatives, before observing the voting on polling day. 

Many in the group visited Turkey in mid-April, when they raised concerns about election logistics in the areas affected by the earthquake. Civil society groups have issued some 17,000 bus tickets to displaced quake victims who want to return to their electoral districts, Sun told Al-Monitor.  

In a joint statement today, Article 19 and Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern that the Erdogan government would exert considerable control over the digital ecosystem to undermine the outcome of the election.  

With most of the media under government control, Turks rely heavily on social media for independent news, despite a growing number of trolls and fake news. In past Turkish elections, social media has played an key role in drawing attention to allegations of voting irregularities.  

“The Turkish government has a well-established track record of exercising its array of website blocking and throttling capabilities when it anticipates criticism or at times of political sensitivity including during elections,” a fact sheet prepared by HRW said. 

AKP, CHP members clash in Gaziantep 

Clashes between rival parties continued on the ground across Turkey. In the southeastern city of Gaziantep, members of the youth branches from AKP and CHP attacked each other, injuring four to seven people. Both sides blamed the other. AKP also posted images of their young members in the hospital as they received a phone call from Erdogan. 

The clash comes after Ekrem Imamoglu, the popular mayor of Istanbul and vice-president designate of the opposition Nation’s Alliance, was pelted with stones at Erzurum, an eastern province known as the bastion of national conservatism, last week.

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