“Exhilaration and depression”. That’s how one newly-elected HDP (People’s Democracy Party) MP, described her mixed feelings as the official results of Turkey’s elections were announced on Sunday 24 June. This emotional ambivalence was likely experienced by many of the party’s supporters that night.
The left wing, pro-Kurdish party achieved extraordinary electoral success in the face of a ferocious campaign of state repression. On 9 June, for example, at a closed meeting of ruling AKP party activists, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for “special measures” to push the HDP’s vote below the 10% threshold required for it to retain any seats in parliament. Soon after a video of this speech went viral there was a bloody clash in Suruc culminating in the brutal murders of a pro-HDP shopkeeper and two of his sons inside a local hospital. The HDP’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas mounted an inspiring, historic challenge from his prison cell and Erdogan publicly threatened to have him executed. Thousands of HDP members, including many elected MPs and mayors, were jailed under the State of Emergency and hundreds of organisers were rounded up during this campaign. The party was almost completely excluded from the overwhelmingly pro-government mass media. On polling day there were myriad instances of bias, harassment, intimidation and fraud directed against it by the state, some of which I witnessed as an elections observer in Sur, the old city of Diyarbakir, an area the authorities substantially demolished in 2016.
In May 2018, Theresa May welcomed Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the UK. She was accused of “racism” by Kurdish groups after a joint press conference she held with Erdoğan. In the conference, she stated:
It is important that in defense of democracy, which has been facing extraordinary pressures from the failed coup, instability across the border from Syria and from Kurdish terrorism, Turkey does not lose sight of the values it is seeking to defend.
Read More HERE
As Turkey goes to the polls for its most important election in modern history, there are many reasons why the election and the results could be extremely suspect. Held under emergency law, the coalition between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has introduced new laws for the election.
The left-wing and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) opposed the legislation and produced a briefing, seen by The Canary, which sets out some of the problems that people could face.
Read More HERE
By Joan Scanlon, Lawyer:
Erdoğan’s electoral victory: was it freely and fairly won?
Joan Scanlon was in Istanbul for the Turkish elections, having been invited as a UK magistrate, to act as an election observer by the HDP, the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party. Along with various other European lawyers, journalists and politicians, she was asked to take an objective view on whether or not the election was conducted in a free and open atmosphere and to observe whether the voting process complied with international norms and procedures.
Erdoğan loomed large from the moment I arrived in Istanbul, two days before the election, and took the bus from Ataturk airport to the city centre. Large buildings on either side of the motorway displayed massive soviet style posters of the President with slogans praising his strong leadership. Lamp posts carried streamers and flags and the streets were festooned with AKP bunting and banners; Erdoğan’s enlarged face gazed at you from every direction, including a terrifying larger than life banner which flapped at you as you emerged blinking into the light from an underpass. The same, now iconic, photograph of Erdoğan repeated itself throughout the city of Istanbul, alongside the oddly naïve and comic image of a light bulb (switched on), which is the AKP logo. There was no sign of any opposition party campaigning material, or images of any of the other presidential candidates. It was only when you went down side streets in the poorest parts of the city that you found the occasional stall with HDP supporters giving out leaflets, or HDP bunting across the buildings – but you had to seek these out. I was told this was not just a matter of access to funds for campaigning, but also that state officials controlling these neighbourhoods had arranged the removal of material promoting any of Erdoğan’s competitors.
Everything I witnessed over the next 48 hours confirmed that the dice had been loaded before the election began. I had heard from various sources that Erdoğan had been given 180 hours of state sponsored television air time in the build up to the election; his closest contender for the presidency, Muharram Ince, was given 15 hours, and the imprisoned leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP party, Selahattin Demirtaş, was granted a mere 35 minutes. (Figures vary, but there is broad agreement that Erdoğan had a virtual monopoly regarding media coverage). There was a TV in the restaurant where I ate on Friday night, with men of various ethnicities bonded in watching the latest world cup match between Switzerland and Serbia; there was surprisingly little outrage when at one point the screening was interrupted by a 10 minute film showing large scale agricultural and industrial developments, a parade with a display of military personnel, hardware and might, even footage of a rocket launch, and finally images of Erdoğan the statesman and strong man shaking hands with various world leaders. Although there were no images of Erdoğan bare-chested on horseback, comparison with Putin was unavoidable.
Turkey has a well-oiled electoral system, and plenty of experience at running elections, having held almost one per year for the last eleven years, including a referendum which Erdoğan won by a slim majority only last April, giving the president sweeping new powers. Turkey also has a well-established democratic tradition, and a fierce visceral attachment to secularism, although confidence in the neutrality and reliability of state institutions has gradually been eroded in recent years. The Islamicisation of education and culture is symbolised for many, unfavourably, by the way in which the Atatürk Cultural Centre in Taksim Square was demolished brick by brick, in slow motion, as Erdoğan’s contested Mosque loomed up, brick by brick, directly opposite, overlooking the green space which was the cause of the violently suppressed Gezi Park protests in 2013. (Planning permission had previously been refused for the Mosque, as it was not deemed by the courts to be in the public interest. The square has long been a contested space, and a space for protest. Five years ago there was a protest here about the use of public space: protesters held demonstrations to prevent a shopping centre being built on one of Istanbul’s few green spaces.) The architecture of the square is a mirror of modern Turkish history: it is changing again, and there are many who feel that the latest building is a symbolic statement of their disenfranchisement. However, the opposition is better organised than at any time in recent history, coalitions have been forged and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has a charismatic new leader In Muharram Ince, who has been drawing millions to his rallies in the lead up to the election. It’s no wonder that Erdoğan decided to take the risk of holding snap elections, rather than waiting for the discontent to grow, and the momentum in favour of the opposition to build. No recent election has seemed so important in determining the future of democracy in Turkey.
Yet this election has been conducted under a state of emergency that has been in place since the failed coup of 2016, and in the context of an ongoing purge of judges, teachers, police and civil servants who are critical of the Erdoğan regime. Over 160,000 have been suspended or dismissed, and around 50,000 formally arrested over the last two years. The HDP Presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, has had to campaign from prison, having not yet been convicted of any crime; his one-time co-chair, feminist activist Figen Yüksekdağ , has had her parliamentary membership revoked after being sentenced to 7 years in prison on terrorism charges. (The HDP operates an enlightened practice of co-presidency with a man and a woman taking equal roles). How is it possible, in these circumstances, to hold free and fair elections? Some have argued that the sheer volume of voters in Turkey, which has one of the highest turn-outs of any democracy in the world (consistently over 80%), along with the time-honoured electoral process, and the strength of political feeling amongst the electorate, is enough to guarantee a fair process and outcome. And indeed the process is impressive: all polling stations are in schools, the ballot committees consist of 7 people, of whom 2 are state officials and 5 are party representatives; everything is stamped, recorded, and witnessed, and when the vote from individual stations is combined at district and city counting centres, limited monitoring is allowed, and any perceived anomalies in the numbers can be challenged. And yet, there is only so much monitoring that can be done, and the counting process creates a particular vulnerability to fraud as votes recorded by hand are combined and computed.
On the day of the election, parties are not allowed to canvass or campaign in any way, but AKP supporters were keen to make their presence felt, and it was clear to me, even without asking, which groups of men hanging around the ballot stations were AKP supporters. In the central region of Istanbul that we were monitoring I saw no evidence of overt intimidation or harassment, but there was something quite menacing about these particular groups of AKP men, and I was not surprised to hear that a fight had broken out at one of the polling stations between supporters of the AKP and those from the new right wing nationalist IYE or so-called ‘Good’ party. By the time we got to that particular station, there was a strong police presence and a large armoured coach parked outside, which evidently made voters nervous (several people came up to us to find out what was happening before entering the polling station, presumably because there were women in our group and we looked rather more approachable than some of those hanging around outside). Interestingly, at this polling station, AKP supporters were recognisable by the fact that every individual man (and it was an all-male group) wore an apparently innocuous orange biro in their breast pocket, or incongruously pegged to their T-shirts, (they had apparently done this in previous elections), as a way of identifying themselves and making a show of strength, with flagrant disregard for the election rules. It was precisely their contention, of course, that each of them could have had a biro in their pocket quite innocently, but there was something sinister about the collective use of this insignia. It was clear that in Istanbul we were only seeing the ‘soft’ end of the electoral bullying by supporters of Erdoğan and the AKP. In the South East, the mainly Kurdish areas, there were reports of gunmen turning up at polling stations, and overt intimidation of voters. I was also informed that the location of the ballot stations in this region had been changed (or combined with others) so that voters from villages which were HDP strongholds were obliged to travel considerable distances to AKP dominated villages to cast their vote, at great risk to their personal safety. They did so because this election mattered, more than any other in recent Turkish history. They did so despite the mass arrests of mayors in the Kurdish regions, and the fact that 3 HDP supporters were murdered in Suruc in recent weeks. Without their courage, the HDP might not have reached (and indeed exceeded) the 10% threshold they needed to retain and increase their share of seats in parliament.
Having visited polling stations across the central region of the city, while I did not witness first hand any major irregularities, violence or threats, I did witness some tension and low-level fear at polling stations in neighbourhoods where the AKP did not have a majority. Moreover, it is clear that there may well have been opportunities for miscalculation at various stages in the process, from the ballot box to the district counting centre and then the city centres. I have no first-hand experience of what happened elsewhere in the country, particularly in the Kurdish areas of the South East, but reports of violence and intimidation there cannot be discounted. The European Parliament did not send observer delegations to Turkey for these elections, and even the OCSE were unable to send observers to the border regions. What we do know is that independent delegations of observers were arrested and held in custody until the elections were over, and thus unable to perform their function. For this reason alone, it is not possible to claim that the elections in these regions were free and fair, or that the final election results have the legitimacy that they claim.
What is certain is that the electoral weighing scales were heavily loaded in favour of Erdoğan. Yet, despite all the pre-election AKP propaganda, and despite the fact that one his main opponents was in prison – Erdoğan only won the election outright with a percentage of 3%. This is a result which, like the result of the Brexit referendum, could have gone in a completely different direction if the campaign had been conducted on a level playing field, and if it had been a fair and honest contest.
This election may thus appear to some as a defeat for women’s rights, for Kurdish liberation, and for hopes of peace in Northern Syria. The only grounds for hope are that the ruling AKP majority has been reduced and the role of the HDP in holding the government to account has been secured. Despite mass arrests of HDP supporters and the imprisonment of its leadership, it has increased its share of the vote and number of seats in Parliament.
Whatever the explanation for this electoral result, it is unlikely to be challenged or overturned. Erdogan’s presidency has been secured for another term and it is therefore likely that he will be in power on the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. He clearly intends to make history, and opponents of the new autocracy will shudder at the prospect of Erdogan fulfilling the promises he made in his election victory speech.