Voter intimidation in Turkey’s Kurdish villages

Melanie Gingell, barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, has written the latest in a series of damning reports about the recent snap election in Turkey, which took place amidst a backdrop of serious violence. Here, she details how voter intimidation became a feature of polling day on 1st November:

The re-run election of 1st November was carried out against a backdrop of extreme state violence particularly in the South East of the country. Thousands of HDP and civil society activists had been arrested and hundreds of HDP offices had been attacked in separate incidents across the country. The mood was extremely sombre and there was little evidence of campaigning by any of the political parties. The two suicide bomb attacks in Suruc and Ankara had inflicted a terrible price on HDP supporters and progressive groups. HDP officials in Diyarbakir said that they had been busy organising funerals in the run up to the election, not campaigning.

Serpil Ersan I were deployed with a local interpreter and driver, to the villages around Diyarbakir city.

Our first stop was Karabas village, which had voted, by a sizeable majority, for the HDP in June. The polling station was situated in the village school. As we approached we could see a steady flow of people arriving to vote. We entered the school and exchanged friendly greetings with the woman running the voting room.

Ballot box committees[1] are responsible for setting up polling in their respective jurisdictions and for the running of polling station on the day. The polling booth is a small area in the corner off the room with a screen around it. The voters find their name on a list, collect one of the ballot papers which consists of a row of boxes listing the political parties accompanied by the party’s logo, followed by: the abbreviation of the name of the political party; the full name of the party; the name of the party’s leader; the list of party candidates; and an empty circle where voters will indicate their selection. Voters receive a stamp, inscribed with the word “YES” (“EVET” in Turkish), used to mark the circle of the political party for which they are casting their vote. They then move to the booth where they should cast their vote in secret.

The first voter we saw was a woman who could not read and write. We observed the election official go into the booth with her to help her cast her vote. We were concerned about this assistance, as although the election regulations offer no guidance as to how illiterate voters should be assisted, it seems pretty obvious that if someone goes into the booth with such a person, this is open to abuse. The concern was heightened because of the high proportion of illiterate voters in this village.

We raised our concern politely. The immediate response was aggressive and hostile, and group of men started to gather around us. Most of the women waiting to vote were separated from the men and pushed into a room and the door shut. The election officer was shouting aggressively at the two women remaining in the room. Our driver intervened to ask people to calm down but the situation escalated quickly; there was shouting and he was punched and kicked and pushed out of the building. We followed in the melee and saw him being pushed around the corner of the building.

After several minutes the situation calmed and we were allowed to go to our vehicle and leave. The driver was shaken but not seriously injured as far as we could tell.

The result at the end of the day was that the June result was reversed and a majority for the AKP was recorded. We have serious concerns that there were irregularities in the voting at this polling station and invited the HDP to make a complaint to the Supreme Board of Elections.

At Doganli village we were informed of concerns about voter intimidation earlier in the day. There were several armed village guards standing around the entrance to the polling station and the atmosphere was one of intimidation. The village guard system was initiated in the 1980s when the state needed an armed militia to assist them in the conflict. The guards are usually given a weapon and a salary but sometimes just a weapon, usually a Kalashnikov (AK47). The system is inherently anti-democratic and certainly should have no place in an election process.

The next village was Buyukakoren where there was a heavy village guard presence at the polling station. There were approximately 10 of them, some in uniform and some not, but all carrying AK47s. Again, this was an intimidating situation.

Our next stop was the village of Ozekli, which we had to approach on foot as the main road in to the village was closed by the army following an attack on 12th august in which 3 soldiers were killed. The road route was now 16 kilometres instead of the normal 3.5km. In June the result had been 1295 to the HDP and 89 to the AKP. The approach was past an army base and watch-tower and we were aware that weapons were trained on us as we walked past. Despite these obstacles and the tense atmosphere the vast majority of people cast their vote.

The last stop of the day was at Alicik, where no concerns were noted and we remained to see the count and hear the result of a reduced HDP majority, down from 342 votes in June to 286 in November.

The election was unfair for a variety of reasons including severe restrictions on the media, the lack of independence of the judiciary, unfair funding systems for political parties and the extreme violence in the South East of the country. The election was unfair because of the five months of killings, the coordinated attacks on the political opposition and the detention of elected officials. All of these factors rendered the opposition weakened and injured. Add to this the allegations of specific irregularities on the day and the conclusion of unfairness is clear and unequivocal.

An election observer from the OSCE commented, “ The violence in the largely Kurdish southeast of the country had a significant impact on the elections, and the recent attacks and arrests of members and activists, predominantly from the HDP, are of concern, as they hindered their ability to campaign.”

Despite this picture of violence, fear and violations, the HDP managed to repeat its spectacular achievement of June and break through the 10% electoral threshold once again. The task ahead of leading the resistance to increasing authoritarianism is daunting but the HDP seems committed to the struggle.

By Melanie Gingell, barrister, Doughty Street Chambers

[1] http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c4460ee2.html

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