I arrived in Igdir in Eastern Turkey, close to the border with Armenia, at 8am on the morning of Sunday June 23rd 2018, election day. My contact, Murat, met me at the airport and we went for a quick cup of chai before heading out to village communities in the foothills of Mount Ararat with a woman who had been the co-mayor of Igdir until unelected trustees had been appointed by the state instead. I had come to Turkey as an independent election observer at the invitation of HDP, having previously been an Election Observer for the European Parliament’s Democracy Support Unit, participating in official Election Observation Missions in Kenya, Kosovo and Kyrgyzstan in 2017.
Arriving at our first port of call we were confronted with a large military presence outside a tiny rural school, nestled amongst a few scattered houses. There were 2 armoured vehicles parked in the school grounds and dozens of soldiers and security guards both inside and outside the building. I could not go inside, the soldiers said so, and they were armed. As we stood outside we could hear an argument begin to develop with raised male voices. Murat entered the building. I watched a young soldier move about outside with his hand on the trigger of the gun at his hip. The atmosphere was very tense. The argument spilled outside and Murat began remonstrating with a man called Osman. Soon a car arrived bringing two more military personnel, one obviously of high rank; the soldiers on duty outside the building stood up straight and nodded in deference to him. The other new arrival carried an automatic rifle. They entered the building.
Osman was persuaded to leave by Murat before the situation escalated out of control and we also left. As we drove past humble cottages and farmsteads to the neighbouring school that Murat had attended as a child, he explained what had been happening inside the polling station. Osman was quite openly trying to vote for someone else who was prevented from exercising their democratic right by the circumstances in which the election was taking place. It should be understood that as a result of the timing of the elections and with many rural polling stations closed for so-called ‘security’ reasons, it was harder for working people in the outlying areas to get to vote in this election. Whilst we must acknowledge that Osman was clearly in breach of the rules, we can also sympathise with people who simply face too many barriers to participation in democratic processes, thereby calling into question the responsible authority. I was impressed by Murat’s handling of the situation as he talked to Osman about why he could not be a proxy for someone else and reasoned with him to leave before things got out of control.
However, a more serious problem had been observed by Murat when he had been inside the polling station, and one that would affect all voters; there was no secret booth for voters to mark their choices in private. For those wishing to vote for parties other than AKP this was particularly worrisome. It is also a breach of electoral standards and from an EU perspective means that the election would not be deemed to be fair or free. Standards should be uniform so that all voters are treated the same, and a secret ballot is paramount.
In another rural polling station I visited that day with Murat and two Catalonian women observers, we were told that an election official had issued an instruction along the lines of, “All those who want to vote for HDP should go in the other room.” Once again this is in breach of electoral norms and also an abuse of power.
The behaviour of the military and the security guards was different in each place we visited. At one polling station we were invited inside to drink tea with the armed personnel. They were very relaxed, both with us and with the voters. We asked why there was such a heavy military presence everywhere and they wearily replied “State of emergency”. They seemed to have had enough of Erdogan’s paranoid dictatorial behaviour which was ruling their lives too.
In sharp contrast with the tea-drinking platoon, we encountered a completely different attitude at a large urban school in the city of Igdir itself where a posse of soldiers patrolled the school grounds with rifles at the ready as if expecting an imminent attack from enemy forces. At this school we we ordered off the premises in no uncertain terms.
All in all, we witnessed intimidation of voters and international observers whether overtly or simply by virtue of a huge armed military presence, often completely disproportionate to the size of the local community and the polling station.
As the polls closed we went to sit with the anxious crowds gathering outside the campaign office to watch the results on a TV screen. As the 10% threshold was reached huge jubilation erupted with spontaneous drumming and dancing that spread throughout the city and continued into the night. However, in the morning Murat was subdued and depressed. Erdogan and AKP’s final share of the vote was alarmingly high for those that had hoped the population would give a clear signal they had had enough of this increasingly fascistic dictatorship. And in Igdir the HDP narrowly missed gaining a second seat. Murat told me that the little village that we first visited had a much lower turnout and lower HDP vote than expected. This would certainly correlate with my observations in the field where many people would have been too frightened to vote for anything other than AKP.