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Will Turkey’s Elections Be Free and Fair?

By Jessica Michek

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Turkey heads to the polls once again on November 1, after parliamentary elections in June stripped the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power for over a decade, of its majority, and attempts by the AKP to form a governing coalition failed. The parliamentary vote, therefore, is especially critical for the AKP, which has worked determinedly since the June vote to ensure a better outcome for itself in November, namely by vocally criticizing the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in an attempt to push it under the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation.

Ahead of the election, there are several questions: will the AKP’s strategy be successful? Will the HDP be able to repeat its stunning success in June? And, as posed by 65 lawmakers in a bipartisan letter to President Obama: will the election be free and fair?

As in June, Turkey’s elections will be observed by delegates from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. However, even if the casting of votes and counting of ballots occur without manipulation, several recent developments suggest that—similar to past elections in Turkey—the Nov. 1 vote will certainly not be fair:

Election monitoring groups are being targeted with a smear campaign. Amid widespread concern of possible electoral fraud during the June vote, civil society groups mobilized in order to observe the voting process, even though Turkey’s election law does not include provisions for electoral monitors that are not representatives of political parties.

Ahead of the November vote, pro-government media has accused civil society group Oy ve Ötesi (Vote and Beyond) of collaborating with anti-government groups to commit fraud in the upcoming election, as well as accusing it of being linked to a variety of enemies of the Turkish state, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the faith-based Gülen Movement. Oy ve Ötesi, however, is undeterred, and announced that it has mobilized 48,500 volunteers to monitor the election.

Turkey’s restrictive media environment means that parties do not receive equal coverage. Ahead of the election, prominent journalists, such as Bulent Keneş, editor-in-chief of the Zaman Daily, have been arrested on charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On Oct. 26, the Turkish government went even further: it seized control of Koza İpek Holding, which owns several media outlets that are critical of the AKP government.

This crackdown on free media has created a chilling environment ahead of the election, ensuring that coverage disproportionately favors the president and the AKP.

The deteriorating security situation disadvantages Kurdish voters. Local election councils in several districts in Turkey’s restive Southeast decided not to establish ballot boxes in certain neighborhoods, or to move ballot boxes out of certain areas, citing security concerns and risks of bomb attacks as the reason. This decision was decried by the HDP: “Every means of pushing the HDP out of the ballot boxes and parliament is being sought,” said party spokesperson Ayhan Bilgen.

In defiance of a decision by the Supreme Election Board that rejected relocating ballot boxes, ballot boxes have been moved in numerous districts in the Southeast affecting hundreds of thousands of primarily Kurdish voters that would likely vote for the HDP.

U.S. policymakers should pay attention not just to the outcome of Sunday’s election but also to any challenges to its fairness. Electoral fairness will matter not only for Turkish voters’ perception of the election’s legitimacy—and, therefore, the country’s stability—but also the growing authoritarianism that has marred Turkey for at least the last two and a half years.

KEYWORDS: TURKEY, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, AKP, TURKISH ELECTIONS, KURDS, PKK, HDP