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Guarding the Turkish election

Julia Hahn, Christian Roman, IstanbulOctober 27, 2015

Terrorism, corruption, vote-rigging - heading into Sunday's elections, the climate in Turkey is one of mistrust. Thousands have volunteered to ensure there's no electoral fraud. Julia Hahn and Christian Roman report.

Türkei Istanbul Wahlen Wahlbeobachter Oy ve Ötesi
Image: DW/C. Roman

Slowly, the room in the Istanbul quarter of Kadiköy is filling up. Normally this is a wedding venue, but today the theme is democracy. Sercan Celebi takes the microphone and steps onto the stage. "We're always talking about vote-rigging: sacks full of ballot papers disappear, ballot boxes vanish off the face of the earth," he says. His message is clear: It's got to change.

Celebi is a businessman. He studied at Yale in the United States. Now, though, so close to fresh elections on November 1, he's a full-time activist for the organization "Oy ve Ötesi" - "Vote and Beyond." He and his team are hoping to recruit least 70,000 volunteer election observers to try and ensure that no fraud takes place on Sunday. They aim to be present in more than half of all the polling stations in the country, from Istanbul and Izmir in the west to Malatya and Diyarbakir in the east.

Türkei Istanbul Wahlen Wahlbeobachter Oy ve Ötesi Gründer Sercan Celebi
Sercan Celebi is one of the founders of "Oy ve Ötesi"Image: DW/C. Roman

No trust in the election

It's fear and insecurity that have driven these people to volunteer in a country they no longer recognize. Since June, when, for the first time, the ruling AKP under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lost its parliamentary majority, the country has been more divided than ever. Daily life is characterized by smear campaigns and terrorism alerts. Critical journalists and opposition supporters are being threatened and locked up.

Baris Zoral will be keeping watch on Sunday in a polling station in Kadiköy. "I'm totally dissatisfied with the situation in my country," says the 29-year-old with the round glasses. "And I don't believe that everything is being done properly when it comes to elections." Thirty-nine-year-old Feriha Eryilmaz feels the same. "I'm worried about my children's future," she says.

According to a study conducted by political scientists at Koc University in Istanbul, only one in two people in Turkey still believes in free and fair elections. In 2007, that figure was 70 percent.

And their suspicions are well-founded. During the municipal elections in early 2014, for example, there were power outages in large parts of the country that went on for hours. Later, the government blamed a cat that had allegedly climbed into an electricity distribution box in a power plant. Since then, the word "cat" has been synonymous among opposition supporters for "electoral fraud."

Beyond political rivalries

Türkei Istanbul Wahlen Selin Kori Wahlbeobachter Oy ve Ötesi
Selin Kori wants to recruit 70,000 volunteersImage: DW/C. Roman

In the "Oy ve Ötesi" headquarters in the center of Istanbul, the phones are ringing off the hook and the babble of voices fills the room. "Oy ve Ötesi" didn't actually come across any vote-rigging during the parliamentary elections in June, says Selin Kori, straightening a bright pink billboard, "But the fact that so many people believe it's happening is problem enough in itself."

Since "Oy ve Ötesi" was founded, after the anti-government Gezi protests in 2013, its volunteers have already observed four elections. Kori explains that anyone wanting to join them registers on the organization's website. They're then invited to attend a training seminar. "People of all ages register with us; AKP, MHP, CHP or HDP supporters," says Kori. "They join in because, for us, it's not about political ideologies, because we're independent."

Independence, transparency, impartiality - these are principles that Sercan Celebi also asks the prospective observers in Kadiköy to swear to uphold. It's a crash course.

Turkey: Hounding Erdogan’s critics

Election day starts for the volunteers at 7 a.m. They check that the ballot boxes are still empty and the ballot envelopes sealed; that no one votes twice, or is turned away. Later on, they help with the counting of every single ballot, and send their results to the central office in Istanbul so they can be compared with the official election result.

Election observers as terrorists?

But as election day draws closer, the observers have to listen to more and more criticism and agitation. Media close to the government claim that "Oy ve Ötesi" has links to terrorist groups like the PKK, and accuse the volunteers of wanting not to observe the elections but to manipulate them themselves. "Every morning I wake up and see that, once again, someone's been spreading untruths about me on Twitter," says Sercan Celebi. "And I worry that trust in our project suffers as a result."

The volunteers, however, refuse to be intimidated. This Sunday, tens of thousands will turn out, keep a close eye on things, and help to count the votes. "We'll only be satisfied when, the day after an election, no one is talking about vote-rigging and fraud," says Celebi.