Turkey’s general election on June 24 will be the culmination of a number of electoral contests that could help President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan consolidate his control. The election is also set to be one of the tightest races yet. Although available polls are inconsistent due to political biases (as pollsters are often affiliated with a particular party) and the fact that they do not represent the largely pro-AKP Turkish diaspora, the prediction is that no presidential candidate will win outright. In this case, the top two candidates, most likely President Erdogan and Muharram Ince, his main contender from the social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), will go to a second round. In both of the two polls conducted by the polling company Remres on a potential second presidential round, Erdoğan achieved no more than a 0.5-point lead, at a maximum of 42.3 percent of the total vote against Ince’s 41.8. Such small margins could incentivize election fraud in a government that although historically committed to the appearance of a fair electoral democracy, has begun to demonstrate its willingness to move away from these principles.
In the 2017 constitutional referendum, which set the ground for transforming Turkey’s parliamentary system into an executive presidency, the “yes” vote won with 51.4 percent. But the opposition, as well as the final report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the referendum, criticized the results because the government had counted 1.5–2.5 million unstamped ballots as valid votes. Standard procedure is for local Ballot Box Committees (BBCs) to pre-stamp all ballot papers on the morning before elections. Although it is theoretically possible that local authorities forget to stamp the votes at the beginning of the day, meaning someone can cast a real vote that remains unregistered, that would effectively mean that every single person of the seven people in that particular BBC had simultaneously forgotten to carry out one of their most fundamental tasks. Turkish laws at the time stated that “such ballots should be considered invalid.” However, according to the chairman of the Supreme Election Board, Sadi Güven, the ballots were included because the ballot papers themselves were “not forged.” Counting the 1.5–2.5 million unstamped ballots in 2017 could have changed the referendum’s outcome.
For the June 24 election, however, counting such unstamped ballots will be officially permitted. This practice was legalized as part of a set of electoral reforms in Law 7102, which parliament passed on March 13, 2018 after a heated debate that erupted into a fist fight. Although the law drew widespread criticism from the opposition, international media has largely ignored the changes. Specifically, Law 7102 now permits the chairperson of each of the 180,064 BBCs—the lowest-level electoral institution, which is responsible for counting votes—to decide whether or not unstamped ballots should be counted as valid.
Not only does this leave room to bribe and intimidate the BBC chairs, but only civil servants are allowed to hold these positions, where before the chairperson was selected by a political party nominee. This would not be an obstacle to fair elections in any state where civil servants act as independent, technocratic extensions of the state apparatus. But in Turkey, public officials have in the past used their offices to campaign on behalf of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and could do so again. In effect, this means that there are now no real checks to ensure that the most important level of the election process will not be carried out without fraud.
In addition, Law 7102 also permits the 81 provincial governors, who are handpicked by the president, to request that the Supreme Board of Elections (YSK) move or merge polling locations if the governors feel it is necessary given vaguely defined “security reasons.” On May 28, the governors in nineteen, mainly Kurdish provinces decided to request the relocation of ballot boxes in their jurisdictions on this basis, and the YSK approved the relocation of several polls in sixteen of these provinces.
The YSK had not approved similar requests to relocate ballot boxes ahead of the November 2015 parliamentary elections, even though the conflict had flared up against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its youth wing, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), and death tolls in the three months prior to the election were 300 percent higher than in the three months leading up to the current election.
The fact that the majority of the ballot moves are in predominately Kurdish regions is no surprise. Several experts, journalists, and NGOs have pointed out that the Kurds are going to be kingmakers in this election, because they as a constituency tend to lean either toward the socially conservative AKP or the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). According to Ayhan Bilgen, spokesperson for the HDP, the ballot boxes tended to be relocated away from “villages where the HDP gets a large share of the votes, around 75-80 percent…. In the villages to which the ballot boxes will be moved, on the contrary, it is seen that AKP gets 75-80 percent of the votes.” This implies that the moves will make it easier for AKP voters to get to their polling locations and therefore ensure a proportional better outcome for the AKP in the Kurdish-dominated Southeast.
However, according to the YSK, which is increasingly under pressure from the AKP, the resistance against the current ballot box relocation is nothing but political noise from the opposition, as the relocated ballot boxes have not been moved further than 5 kilometers (3 miles) from their original location, and half have been moved less than 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles). But in addition to making voters travel a little farther, the relocation prevents election observers from being able to compare ballots against local lists of registered voters. As noted by Abdullah Bozkurt, an exiled Turkish journalist and president of the Stockholm Center for Freedom, this eliminates “a tool that comes in handy for the opposition to easily check whether duplicate or fake ballot sheets were used in a certain neighborhood.” Moreover, as highlighted by a June 13 report from the International Crisis Group, these ballot box relocations can potentially discourage voters who may be reluctant to travel to a neighboring village associated with a rival Kurdish clan, citing one resident of Şanlıurfa as saying, “the elders or clan leaders will likely not want their clan members to travel there.”
According to the YSK, the relocation affects 144,000 voters—though according to MP Mithat Sancar of the HDP, it will impact as many as 270,000 voters. Either figure could have a fundamental impact on what seems to be a very tight presidential race, not to mention the HDP’s own prospects. Polls suggest that the HDP is just hovering around 10 percent of votes, which is the threshold it must pass to have any seats in parliament. Even if elections are fully free and fair, it might not meet this threshold, especially as about 500,000 seasonal workers, many of them Kurdish, reside away from their local voting polls in the summer. The additional effect of the relocations on turnout and the capacity for voting fraud make the HDP’s prospects even more uncertain. If the party does not achieve the necessary votes, this would pave the way for what will most likely be an absolute majority for the AKP in parliament, thereby easing any checks on Erdogan’s presidency.
In short, the relocation of ballot boxes, alongside legalization of unstamped ballots, could potentially allow the AKP to manipulate results to its benefit—together with other means such as reconfiguring the ethnic makeup of some predominately Kurdish southeastern regions and the use of intimidation. Effectively, this brings into question not only how level Turkey’s electoral playing field is, but also the legitimacy of Turkey’s electoral democracy as a whole.
Ferhat Gurini is the Middle East editor of the Danish quarterly RÆSON. Follow him on Twitter @FerhatGurini.