Turkey local elections a referendum on Erdogan

Opinion /  / 

A woman cast her ballots at a polling station during the municipal elections in Ankara, Turkey, Sunday, March 31, 2019. Turkish citizens have begun casting votes in municipal elections for mayors, local assembly representatives and neighborhood or village administrators that are seen as a barometer of Erdogan's popularity amid a sharp economic downturn. (AP Photo/Ali Unal)

ANKARA - Polls are looking good for the opposition in this Sunday’s local elections in Turkey, with surveys of voters’ intentions saying the opposition will win in Izmir and Ankara and possibly take control of Istanbul, the biggest prize of all.

If that happens, the opposition will have humiliated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the politician who has dominated politics for the past 17 years and turned Turkey away from EU-standards of human rights to a system of presidential rule more powerful than any of his European peers.

The president’s critics have to concede one thing: the 65-year-old Erdogan has been campaigning like a man in his forties. 

He has addressed two or three rallies a day in different towns for the past five weeks. He wears a black suit and tie, sometimes a black winter coat on top, and changes the football-club scarf around his neck as rapidly as he changes location.

 His voice has grown hoarse on some days, but he has kept going.

The reason for this extra-ordinary effort is that when voters cast their ballots on Sunday, they will be voting for mayors and mukhtars (neighbourhood officials) only in literal terms. 

The election is actually a referendum on Erdogan. As inflation is at 20%, unemployment 13.5% and food prices having risen by 30% year-on-year, the voters are disenchanted with their president.

The unknown factor in the race is fraud. Cheating has become so brazen that, after the 2017 referendum and the 2018 elections, videos were posted on social media of election officials stamping ballot after ballot in favour of Erdogan or his Justice and Development Party (AKP). So the question is: Will the authorities allow the opposition to win the three biggest cities in the land?

“I don’t trust the elections,” said an electrical engineer, Murat Yilmaz, sitting on a bench in Swan Park, Ankara. 

“The state doesn’t function as a state any more.”

The distrust is so widespread that all of the opposition parties in parliament - the main Republican People’s Party (CHP), the centre-right Good Party (Iyi) and the liberal, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) - have accused the Supreme Electoral Council of bias.

“The SEC should be fair and independent, but in recent years it has been acting like a branch of the government,” the Iyi Party’s head of election security, Hasan Seymen, said in an interview.

Turkey has the technical abilities to trace the cell phones of the people who posted the ballot-stamping videos, and thereby find the electoral officials who committed fraud. But nobody was prosecuted for those videos.

Nevertheless there are those who argue that for all its flaws, an election is worth taking part in - either as a candidate or as a voter. One such advocate is Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of the German Marshall Fund think-tank in Ankara.

“Our elections are unfair. They are not entirely free,” Unluhisarcikli said, referring to the media bias in favour of AKP and the detention of opposition legislators. 

“But they are real and they are competitive, and the opposition does have a chance of winning.”

“If the elections were fake, why is Erdogan so nervous?” he asked rhetorically.

What is arguably the best polling company in Turkey, Metropoll, says the opposition alliance of the CHP-Iyi parties will definitely win in Izmir and Ankara, the third and second biggest cities in Turkey. 

Its director, Ozer Sencar, told this correspondent that in Istanbul the race was too close to call, but last month the opposition candidate was ahead of the AKP candidate by more than 3 percentage points.

A second independent pollster, AREA, found that in Ankara the CHP-Iyi candidate will poll 44.3 percent to the AKP candidate’s 39.3 - a lead of five percent.(The poll was conducted among 2,060 people on March 9-19 and has margin of error of 2%.) 

In Istanbul, AREA predicted the opposition would poll 44% to the AKP’s 42%, but this result is within the 2% margin of error. (The poll was conducted among 3,320 people on March 9-19.) In Izmir, AREA forecast the opposition would score 53.9% to the AKP’s 32.8 percent. (The poll was conducted among 2,045 people on March 9-19 and has a margin of error of 2%.)

The CHP and Iyi parties say they are working flat out to transform such forecasts into reality and that means they have to contain fraud.

Ankara, a city of five million people, is key battleground. Not only is it the capital, but it is a more conservative city than Istanbul or Izmir, a town where Erdogan’s supporters feel more at home. And it has been held by the AKP and its ideological predecessor for the past 25 years.

The head of election security in CHP, Onursal Adiguzel, says the party will deploy 14,345 party activists to monitor Ankara’s 12, 158 ballot boxes. And they will be supported by 25,000 volunteers.

When ballots are counted, the CHP representatives have to send the results on a special cell-phone App to party headquarters. They also have to collect signed tally sheets, called tutanaklar in Turkish, and deliver them to the party’s district offices, where the results will be computerised.

Adiguzel showed this correspondent how the party’s compilation of results could be compared to those issued by the SEC. Whenever there is a discrepancy, the CHP computer screen turns red. Objections must be filed within 48 hours of polls closing.

“The most important thing is that we collect the original tutanaklar. If we have all thetutanaklar from the polling stations, we will have time to file objections,” he said in an interview in the CHP headquarters.

Adiguzel admitted that in the 2014 local elections the party had been let down by its own monitors. In many cases, CHP monitors went home after the ballots had been counted, not waiting to check the filling-in of the tutanaklar. It is alleged that at this stage the fraud took place that robbed the CHP candidate, Mansur Yavas, of the election he was expected to win. Many tutanaklar were signed by only one election officer, when they should have been signed by five officers, including party representatives.

On Sunday, Mansur Yavas is standing again as the candidate of CHP-Iyi. “We are telling all of our monitors not to leave the polling stations until the tutanaklar have been filled in, stamped, and they have got originals,” Adiguzel said.

Iyi party is putting its emphasis on training monitors and supporting them with lawyers - one lawyer for every three polling stations. It has published a booklet on a monitor’s duties and legal rights. And it has run a test election with monitors filing invented results to check that Iyi’s central computer is not overloaded - a common problem in last year’s elections.

Seymen told this correspondent he is very much aware of the failings of the opposition in previous elections.

“If you leave the door open, fraud will come in,” he said.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.