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Guarding against voter fraud in Turkey

Diego Cupolo
April 15, 2017

Following allegations of foul play in past elections, ballot box observers hope to deter voter fraud in Turkey's divisive referendum. Diego Cupolo reports from Ankara.

Türkei Referendum Wahllokal in Istanbul Präsident Erdogan
Image: Reuters/M. Sezer

Turks are voting in today's referendum on presidential power, and tens of thousands of ballot box observers have volunteered across the country to monitor the voting process. Some are independent, while others are aligned with political parties, but all will work to deter voter fraud in what may be the republic's most significant decision since its founding in 1923.

Shortly after voting began on Sunday, there were reports that "observers detained in Diyarbakir" and "Reports of monitors being barred from their assigned polling areas in southeast Turkey"

and "observers reportedly beaten and removed from Urfa Ceylanpinar voting"

Turks are voting "Yes" or "No" essentially on whether to shift governmental powers from the parliament to the president's office, currently held by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Recent polls show results are too close to predict, with about 10 percent of voters remaining undecided.

The uncertainty, combined with divisive campaign rhetoric and past allegations of electoral fraud in Turkey, has brought even greater significance to the role observers will play in this critical decision.

"Every vote will directly affect every citizen's life in this country, as well as my own," said Newal Tan, a ballot box observer and adviser for the minority-focused People's Democratic Party (HDP). "In public opinion, the security and validity of elections is a controversial issue."

Tan said she volunteered as a ballot box observer to "break this perception of public opinion and make my conscience more comfortable."

'We expect fraud'

During a phone interview on Friday, Hakan Ozturk, a board member for the opposition-affiliated Unity for Democracy (DIB), said, "We expect fraud."

"In our country you cannot just vote and go home and wait for results," Ozturk said. "You have to protect votes one by one, because we have witnessed fraud many times."

Citing occurrences of ballot box stuffing and the use of fake names in past elections, he highlighted the importance of observers at polling sites, who help count votes and document results through cell phone pictures that they upload to databases.

Generally, Ozturk said, the most difficult votes to track were those of state employees, particularly members of the armed forces who are stationed away from their home towns and have more flexibility in choosing voting sites.

Nein zu Erdogan  Istanbul
AKP officials claim that "No" voters side with terroristsImage: Reuters/H.Aldemir

Past irregularities

The concerns are not unfounded. Irregularities were reported following the November 2015 elections, in which votes may have been lost, switched or rejected on technicalities. After conducting a preliminary analysis, "The Washington Post" reported that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) "by most measures benefited from the extensive frauds that we detect, especially in eastern Turkey," in areas where voters tend to lean towards the HDP.

Further back, in the 2014 mayoral elections, a McClatchy investigation found that one-quarter of ballot box tallies arrived at counting centers in Ankara without the official stamp of the electoral board, meaning the tallies were unverified.

When the issue was contested by the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), it was quickly "rebuffed in hearings that lasted just minutes," handing Erdogan's candidate the win.

In the same elections, power outages were reported throughout the country, which the government would later blame on a cat that had climbed on an electricity distribution box. To this day, the cat story is linked with electoral fraud in Turkey.

Still, ballot box observers aligned with the AKP, such as Nihat Alcan, have denied claims of this kind.

"They keep claiming AKP steals votes, but I have never witnessed this despite being in places where I could have witnessed it," said Alcan, who also serves as head of the AKP Youth Branch in Igdir. "As a citizen, my first responsibility is to vote. The second is to protect the vote … I have protected everyone's votes."

Alcan, in turn, said that 300 to 400 votes were "stolen" from his village in the June 2015 elections and that in monitoring the voting process, he felt threatened by HDP supporters and militants linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Türkei Banner mit Porträt von Präsident Erdogan in Istanbul
A "Yes" vote will boost the powers of the presidentImage: Getty Images/C. McGrath

Pre-vote suppression

His remarks highlight the way in which supporters on both sides of the vote often feel victimized. Erdogan, who has branded himself as a man of the people by expanding religious freedoms, displayed the use of an underdog stance in disputes with EU nations over cancelled campaigning events abroad.

The same tactic is often employed within Turkey's borders, where secular CHP supporters long held power over the nation's pious population, which represents 50 to 60 percent of voters and gained prominence only under Erdogan's rule. As the balance of power slowly shifted away from Turkey's secularists, they have been increasingly targeted and demonized.

Since referendum campaigning began, AKP officials have claimed "No" voters side with terrorists and support Fethullah Gulen, a cleric in self-imposed exile accused of plotting last year's coup attempt. Such charges have unofficially criminalized opposition views at a time when they are also muzzled by uneven media coverage in the country.

In many ways, the political atmosphere in the run-up to the referendum impacted the vote. A state of emergency has been in place since last year's failed coup, freedom of speech is restricted and 13 HDP officials remain in jail. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that Turkey hosts "an increasingly impoverished and one-sided public debate."

And yet, for Esra, 27, who gave only her first name, serving as ballot box monitor for CHP was her way of "taking charge" in such an environment.

"I believe this is the most unjust campaign in our political history," she said. "I want to serve … to make an individual democratic contribution to this referendum, which is being conducted under pressure, with lies and manipulations."