COMMENTARY — New tools for election fraud and voter intimidation in Turkey

By Abdullah Bozkurt

The possibility of holding free and fair elections in Turkey effectively disappeared in 2015 when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associates seized the judiciary, took control of the Supreme Election Commission (YSK) and dismantled the free and independent media. Recent legislative changes to electoral law in Parliament have simply placed what was already seen as a de facto situation in legal disguise in a country where the rule of law, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression were almost totally wiped out.

Nevertheless, the hurried changes to the 1961 electoral law that were approved by Parliament as Law No. 7102 on March 13, 2018 suggest worry on the part of Erdoğan, who did not want to take any chances, however slim, that the outcome would not reflect his choices. The primary thrust for amending the election law focuses on handing over control of ballet boxes to the governors, who are appointed by Erdoğan and act as his partisan thugs, perhaps much more so than the local heads of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey’s 81 provinces. The new rule for recognizing unsealed ballots and envelopes as valid is intended to pave the way for ballot stuffing and voter fraud on a large scale while granting immunity to election officials who engage in such acts.

The first article of Law No. 7102 does away the requirement for households to vote at polling stations designated for their neighborhood. Voters now are free to cast their choices in any polling station as long as they remain within own districts, preventing a thorough examination of election irregularities based on voter sheets drawn up in advance for neighborhoods. In other words, a tool that comes in handy for the opposition to easily check whether duplicate or fake ballot sheets were used in a certain neighborhood was taken away by making it difficult to trace and track voters at the district level. The opposition claims that Erdoğan can easily set up a polling station that is fully under the control of his operatives in remote places where voter fraud would be impossible to detect.

Article 2 of the law allows the governors and heads of provincial election commissions to move ballot boxes and combine polling stations or election districts. This is carte blanche for Erdoğan and his party to manipulate the election at the district level through reshuffling, moving and merging ballot boxes to obtain a favorable outcome. Since the governors are political appointees, they act as partisan thugs and would likely exercise this new power according to the wishes of the president. There is no limit on the extent of this merging of ballot boxes, polling stations and districts and no mechanism in the law defining how it should proceed. When asked if there were any incidents, legal challenges or contestations in the last election that would justify such an amendment, the ruling party lawmakers remained silent.

In fact, the YSK’s two judgments dated Oct. 5 and Oct. 15, 2015 rejected the requests of provincial and district election commissions to move ballot boxes for reasons of safety. In its ruling the YSK stated that such an action would deprive voters of their right to freely cast their ballot in their own districts and thereby violates not only Article 63 of the Turkish Constitution but also contravenes the relevant articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the opinions of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

Article 3 and 4 of Law No. 7102 amended the selection of the president and members of the election commission at the district level, removing the possibility of political parties representing themselves at the election commission. With the change, all members of the commission including the president would be selected from among public employees, whose allegiance lies with the Erdoğan regime. Previously, a community member in good standing could have been nominated for a seat by the political parties. Considering the fact that Erdoğan has purged 150,000 civil servants on fabricated charges of terrorism in around a year with no effective administrative or legal investigation, no government employees would dare challenge Erdoğan’s party in running elections, vote tallying and certifying results.

Article 5 envisages the merging of votes cast for two separate elections (presidential and parliamentary) and requires voters to put different votes in the same envelope. This is a bizarre application in which voters are obligated to use the same envelope for two different elections, although it may be a way to save trees. We know that Erdoğan plans to send letters to 23 million households in Turkey on March 21, 2018 when the world celebrates International Forest Day. Therefore, environmental concerns are not on his agenda at all. The real reason for using the single envelope is to put pressure on voters and manipulate their choices. The opposition also challenged putting ballots in one envelope, saying that it violated the basic principle of separation of powers when voters are forced to use the same envelope for both executive and legislative choices.

Article 8 made some revisions to polling station security that drew criticism from opposition parties. According to the new law, police would be able to enter the polling station area to intervene in an incident based on a report from a private citizen. Previously only the election commission head at the local police station was authorized to call on police to respond to an incident. The fact that tips from informants have often been used in recent years to crack down on legitimate dissent, this change represents a real threat for voters, who would be intimidated at the polling stations. The new law also turned the definition of polling station from specific measurements stipulated in the previous law to a more vague description of “any building, structure or similar place” identified by the head of the district election commission.

Article 9 and 11 allow the election officials to deem unsealed or improperly sealed ballots as valid, reversing earlier provisions that explicitly stated such ballots were to be counted as invalid. This was the major controversy during the April 16, 2017 referendum on a constitutional amendment that gave Erdoğan sweeping powers and changed a parliamentary democracy into an imperial presidency. On referendum day, the YSK issued what international observers and opposition parties considered to be a totally wrong decision in breach of the law which regarded unsealed ballots as valid after the counting of ballots in some districts had started. The YSK did not even advise how many ballots were impacted by this last-minute decision. According to the main opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP), 1 million votes were impacted by the YSK decision.

Now Erdoğan is trying to fix this with a new law to make up for what he did in the 2017 referendum, in which many believe he stole the victory. The sealed ballot practice has been around in Turkey since the 1960s and is regarded as an important measure to check against voter fraud and ballot stuffing. The officials at each polling station stamp the ballots in the morning before the voting starts to ensure that those ballots are validated. At the end of the day, both sealed and unsealed ballots were tallied to detect any discrepancy in the number of ballots shipped to polling stations.

It is clear that with Article 10, Erdoğan attempted to micromanage even the ballot design to gain an unfair advantage for the alliance he struck with the nationalists and other smaller parties. The very detailed provisions allocate a larger area for the symbols of the alliance in contrast with those of the other political parties and consider any mark that slightly touches a larger rectangular area that signifies the alliance valid for both the alliance and individual parties that formed the alliance. The votes count towards both the alliance and the individual political parties that form it, eliminating the possibility of knowing whether voters approved the alliance or not. Article 13 sees the proportionate distribution of ballots cast for the alliance to allied parties. It begs the question of how the distribution would be made without any data that would reveal the voters’ preference for individual political parties that form the alliance.

Erdoğan and his allies contemplate that they will get more financial aid from the Treasury by changing the calculation of the vote tally for the alliance and individual political parties. Article 18 brings changes to that effect which would also allow for these parties to publicly claim higher voter support. Article 20 talks about the 10 percent national election threshold for political parties to gain seats in Parliament. The smaller parties including the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) would be saved from the possibility of being left outside Parliament with this revision that exempts them from the 10 percent threshold. The change states that the total vote count would be considered for the alliance and no consideration would be given to individual parties that form the alliance.

To put it more bluntly, the Grand Unit Party (BBP), which only received 0.5 percent in the Nov. 1, 2015 elections would enter Parliament because of its alliance with the AKP, while the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which received 10.8 percent in 2015 could remain outside Parliament if it were to get 9.9 percent of the vote in the coming elections. The high election threshold gives important leverage to Erdoğan’s party to arm-wrestle other political leaders. The main reason why Devlet Bahçeli, the unpopular leader of the MHP, decided to strike a partnership with Erdoğan is his fear of the MHP being dislodged from Parliament in next elections. The MHP received 11.9 percent of the national vote in the November 2015 elections, and he is now facing a formidable challenge from Meral Akşener, former MHP deputy who set established the Good Party to run in the elections.

These changes in the election law are intentionally designed to benefit Erdoğan, his AKP and his allies and to enhance the prospects of the ruling party, whose chances of winning are already big under the current circumstances in which the government has near total domination of the media landscape, a tight leash on the judiciary, a cash cow from state coffers as well as private donors, a weakened civil society and a fractured and battered opposition. Let’s acknowledge that Turkey has almost reached its destination of becoming yet another dictatorship on par with Libya’s Qaddafi, Syria’s Assad and Iraq’s Saddam. What a shame to see that such a promising country has quickly deteriorated to become another autocracy under Islamist thugs led by corrupt politician Erdoğan. (turkishminute.com)

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