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Who Oversees Turkey’s Elections?

By Jessica Michek

Thursday, June 4, 2015

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As we approach the Turkish parliamentary elections on June 7, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) will examine a variety of factors that may influence the results of these significant elections, including the economy, election oversight, and the process of forming a new government. Read our new report on what’s at stake in Turkey’s elections. You can also view all of BPC’s past work on Turkey.

All elections in Turkey are overseen by the Supreme Electoral Board (YSK), which is based in Ankara and headed by a committee composed of high-ranking members of the judiciary chosen by the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State. Underneath the YSK are 81 provincial election boards, 1,067 district election boards, and 174,240 ballot box committees.

Composition of the YSK

The YSK is composed of seven members and four reserve members each serving six-year terms who oversee the activities of the YSK at the provincial and district level. Out of those members, six are elected by the Supreme Court of Appeals and five are elected by the Council of State from within their own members. The committee is currently chaired by Sadi Güven, who was appointed in January 2013.

Eligible political parties—parties that are currently represented in parliament or the four parties who received the largest share of the votes in the previous election—are also allowed to appoint non-voting members to the YSK. Current non-voting members include representatives from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and the Felicity Party (SP).

The YSK is responsible not only for ensuring compliance with electoral rules and regulations but also the assessment of any accusations of irregularities. Appeals and protests can be made to the YSK’s district and provincial representatives. Ultimately, the YSK has the power to annul an election result and order a rerun. In electoral disputes, the YSK effectively acts as the court of last resort, with its decisions exempt from any kind of judicial review.

The Counting Process

In Turkish elections, votes are counted by election officials in the presence of observers designated by eligible political parties. These observers are allowed within 15 meters of the ballot box and have the right to object to the ballot box committee at any time, and file a report with the district election board if the ballot box committee rejects their objection.

The results are checked and entered in an official tally of the votes in each ballot box, copies of which are signed and stamped by election officials and given to representatives of the political parties at the polling station. The ballot papers and envelopes are placed in a sealed container and sent, together with a stamped and signed copy of the results, to the district election board. The district election board combines the results, and then brings them to their provincial election board. Party representatives are present during all steps of this process. Election officials enter the results from each ballot box in a centralized computer database, the Computer-Based Elector Record System (SEÇSİS), which pre-selected media outlets are able to access.

The June elections also mark the first parliamentary election that Turks living abroad will be allowed to vote at international polling stations. In previous elections, Turkish citizens living abroad were required to travel to polling stations at border gates to cast their vote. Out-of-country ballots, however, will be transported to a central location in Ankara for counting. Parties have expressed concern that those ballots will be vulnerable to tampering during transportation.

Is the YSK Impartial?

Turkey’s March 2014 local elections were the most controversial in recent history, triggering an unprecedented number of accusations of irregularities and vote-rigging. There were more than 1,400 allegations of irregularities, the overwhelming majority of them made by opposition parties against results in which AKP candidates were victorious. But the YSK ordered only two reruns—both of them in response to appeals by the AKP against narrow losses to opposition parties.

In light of widespread allegations of fraud in the March 2014 elections, opposition parties have expressed concern that this month’s June elections will face similar issues. The YSK’s failure to comprehensively investigate fraud claims arising from the March 2014 elections does not inspire confidence that the electoral board will safeguard the integrity of the June vote. So far, the YSK has not acted to ensure a level playing field in the parliamentary elections, rejecting multiple complaints lodged by opposition parties against President Erdoğan—who is legally obligated under the Turkish constitution to be impartial—for campaigning in favor of the AKP.

Election Security

Chairman of the YSK Sadi Güven has assured voters that vote-tampering will be impossible. “There is no trouble in terms of election security concerning ballots,” he said to Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.

However, deputy chair of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Bülent Tezcan warned that the security of the election was “at risk” and suggested additional measures to enhance security, such as marking the fingers of those that have voted to prevent fraud—a procedure which Turkey discontinued in 2011. “Finger paint is not a practice which is sufficient to provide election safety on its own. But today, if we are talking about finger paint again, this is a very striking expression and confession of our inability to have an election safety conversation,” he said at a June 2 press conference.

A Turkish whistleblower tweeting under the name Fuat Avni has alleged that the AKP plans to commit fraud, installing “bought members” to tamper with the vote totals as they are entered into SEÇSİS. On June 2, Avni published a list of 324 polling clerks that he alleges will tamper with votes in the AKP’s favor. In response to widespread concerns of fraud, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced that it would increase the intended size of its electoral monitoring mission.

Should irregularities occur on June 7, with political parties and both domestic and international observers monitoring the vote, it will fall on the YSK to adjudicate and, if necessary, order reruns. Whether or not the committee will act fairly, however, remains to be seen.