Despite its citizens going to the polls in the wake of military coups, economic crashes and other crises, Turkey has managed to develop a strong record of running free and fair elections since the country ended one-party rule in 1950. But with local polls being held on Sunday in the midst of a particularly heated and deeply polarized political fight between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition, there are growing questions about whether this vote will end Turkey's streak of untainted elections.
Over the last few weeks and months, the amount of rumors and questions surrounding the sanctity of Sunday's elections has been quickly increasing (a good example can be found here). The reason for this is clear: the AKP and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after a decade of easy electoral victories are suddenly finding themselves fighting the most intense and complex political battle they have yet to face and have staked their legitimacy to winning big at the ballot box. Failing to score a decisive victory on Sunday, by losing in Istanbul or Ankara or by failing to win more than 40 percent of the national vote, is a scenario that Erdogan -- based on the level of invective he is using against his opponents -- is clearly not wiling to consider.
Heading into Sunday's vote, the Turkish domestic political environment is tenser than it has been in decades. Erdogan and the AKP are facing accusations of large-scale corruption and are engaged in an all-out battle with the powerful Islamic Gulen movement, previously an ally, forcing the PM to take a series of increasingly autocratic moves, the latest being the government's ban on access to Twitter. With things as tense as they are, it's not surprising that both the AKP and its opponents are saying they are worried about Sunday's vote being somehow compromised. As the Hurriyet Daily News reported yesterday:
With just days to go before crucial local elections in Turkey, concerns about the credibility of ballots are being raised from varying parts of the political spectrum.
The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Ayşenur İslam and opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli have been the latest figures to raise questions on the issue.
İslam, Turkey’s Family and Social Policy Minister, claimed that the way her party could be beaten on March 30 was “through cheating.”
“They will do everything they can in the last five days. There will be evil and dirt. Get ready for this,” she said. “The worst will be made on the ballots on March 30. Our friends in the ballots will be the ones to disrupt their calculations.”
İslam claimed that the volunteers standing at the ballots counting the votes had a harder task “than the bowmen in the Battle of Uhud,” where the Muslims defeated the Meccan army in 625.
The opposition voiced similar concerns. “For example there are 50 ballots in a school. A Party has 11 votes. When the volunteer is not around, somebody comes along and adds a number to the list, makes a Party’s vote 111,” Bahçeli told his supporters in Mersin yesterday. “I address to the volunteers assigned to ballots. You will be fasting during a mission that day. You may stay hungry, you may not drink a tea.”
It would be easy to dismiss these concerns as electioneering, but concern about Sunday's vote has also been expressed by several European parliament members, who recently asked the European Union to send election monitors to Turkey, as well as by domestic analysts who are not prone to hysterics. A good example is a recent column in Today's Zaman (a Gulen-affiliated newspaper, it must be noted) by Cengiz Aktar, a respected professor of political science at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, who also wrote about his belief that election monitoring is now needed in Turkey. From his column:
The prime minister's last political fortress is the ballot box.
He would like to fend off the corruption allegations forever through the ballot box and thus continue his political career. Whether or not this is possible we shall see soon. Even if he wins big, it looks like it will be difficult for him to hold public office in Turkey. But first we need to question how democratically these elections are taking place and thus how legitimate the results will be. These elections are set to be some of the most controversial since 1946, when Turks voted freely for the first time.
To sum it up: There have been several attacks on People's Democracy Party (HDP) offices, disproportionately large slots allotted to the ruling party on state television, a pressurized media that affects the voters' right to obtain information, allegations of vote-rigging by the ruling party and a Supreme Election Board (YSK) that finds it unnecessary for ministers who are mayoral candidates to resign from their ministerial posts. All these are enough to prompt questions about the legitimacy of the March 30 elections.
At at recent event on the upcoming elections, held at the Brookings Institution in Washington, the panel -- Turkish political scientists Ali Carkoglu and Kemal Kirisci -- was asked what they thought about the election fraud rumors circulating in Turkey. Putting the rumors aside, both said their bigger concern was about a potential lack of public confidence in the vote's outcome. "The confidence in elections is the last standing pillar of Turkish democracy," said Kirsci, who heads Brookings' Turkey Project. "If there's a crack in that pillar, then there's real trouble for Turkish democracy."
Considering there's so much questioning of the upcoming vote already in the air, we are probably already watching that pillar start to crack, if not crumble. With both sides in Turkey's increasingly ugly political battle convinced the other one is willing to do whatever it takes to win, Turkey's Sunday election has already become tainted -- without one vote yet even being cast.