Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author Ertuğrul Genç.
As a “second-wave” democracy that at least managed to establish regular, free and fair elections, Turkey’s last local elections that took place on March 30th, 2014 was rather different than most in the country’s past. As the country witnessed serious political turmoil starting from the Gezi Park protests erupted at the end of May 2013, it can be safely said that the political tension rarely waned until today, and when it did, only to re-erupt even more strongly, especially after the probe involving four ministers of the cabinet and extending to the son of the Prime Minister Erdoğan as well as other notable figures of the governmental circles. The legal process was followed by leaks of sound tapes spread on social media and watched by millions, creating widespread controversy and seriously impacting the debates surrounding the political future of the country, and most immediately the local elections.
Under such circumstances, everyone could see that the elections turned into a pseudo-referendum and a vote of confidence for the ruling AKP, and especially its leader, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Although he adopted a rhetoric that seemingly criticized the approaches adopted by the opposition that turns the local elections into a national one, it was not even slightly questioned that he also contributed to that fact and was personally happy the way it developed, for a “pure” local election might have make him look like having lost substantial percentage of votes, as local elections generally did in Turkey, and even during AKP tenure in 2009.
Furthermore, public surveys largely pointed out that the expected results would not challenge the political power blocs, let alone fundamentally changing the ongoing situation. As expected, the ruling party earned around 43% of the votes while the two main opposition parties earned around 27% and 17%, respectively, and the political debate resumed, but this time with one more topic around which heavy debate has taken place.
Perhaps for the first time since 1946, an election in Turkey was subject to heavy and extensive criticism on the grounds that it involved fraud and vote-rigging. Before, such a line of argument has been limited only to a narrow group of people in the opposition who was prone to conspiracy theories –as most people in Turkey do- and could not critically analyze the reasons why the AKP gained such a big vote percentage. In 2014, however, widespread complaints ensued the elections, from power cuts thought to be caused by AKP-supporting government officials to allegations of vote rigging, manipulation by official ballot-observers, and most especially by the workers of the Supreme Electoral Council during the process of counting the votes.
Although somewhat expected in local elections, complaints and accusations after the last month’s elections were so widespread that especially in Ankara where a CHP candidate was competing against the 20 year Mayor Melih Gökçek of AKP for a highly important position in the country’s capital, the narrow vote margin of less than 1% and extensive complaints and partial proof of errors made in counting and merging official records from ballots caused the opposition supporters to gather in the headquarters of CHP as well as the buildings where the Supreme Electoral Council receives bags of votes and where the merging process was going to take place. As thousands poured into the street in different locations in Ankara, similar events took place in other streets where the mayor was decided after a very close contest, including the touristic paradise of Antalya in the south and Antakya, the multi-cultural city in the southern tip of Turkey, bordering conflict-ridden Syria.
AS youth flocked to the CHP headquarters in Ankara in hundreds, a similar collective effort took place on twitter and other major social media websites, reminding everyone how important it was to sustain and expand the ties created during the Gezi Park protests. The ensuing chaos somewhat waned when the main opposition party CHP officially declared that it was going to appeal to the results. However, the appeal has been refused, further increasing claims and allegations of widespread fraud. The CHP candidate Mansur Yavaş declared that it will not stop from pursuing the fate of his supporters votes, and that he will even appeal to the Constitutional Court (as individuals can appeal to the Constitutional Court in Turkey) if need be.
In the meantime, scholars and PhD students of mostly Turkish origin have extensively debated on the issue, and Twitter was dominated with advanced statistical charts, diagrams and even article-like analyses, notably from PhDs Eren Yanık, Murat Eren and also Erik Meyersson from the Stockholm School of Economics, further intensifying the debate.
As of the first week of April, almost none of the allegations were proven correct but the appealing process still carries on, and the citizens are waiting for the final verdict. Facing presidential elections in six months and general elections in fifteen months, political tensions is unlikely to decrease, and thus Turkey in the light of the recent political developments will be an interesting case to witness the ups and downs of a democratization process in a country dominated by a single party government, institutionally in Europe, struggling to establish democratic practices and values since at least six decades. The worst outcome would be the deterioration of the electoral process –further, arguably- and thus depriving the country of one of its most flawless democratic aspects, that of free and fair elections. On the other hand, overcoming the abovementioned allegations and restoring confidence and trust towards the electoral, judicial and political system in the country will be helpful in bringing together the highly-polarized segments of the society.
Accordingly, the most recent elections offer both threats and opportunities to Turkey in overcoming its recently seemingly unsolvable political clash, at a time when political debate increasingly covers much of the news and the interpersonal debates. Yet, the existence of such problems per se indicates a broader problem, that of the persisting problem of deepening the democratic system in Turkey despite all the efforts, legislative changes and the anchoring effect of the EU and other Western institutions of which Turkey is a long-time member. The unfolding of the political events in the near future will therefore be decisive for the internal peace of the country and the debate surrounding the presidential or the semi-presidential regime type that is likely to heat up as we get closer to the first presidential elections in the country’s history, which will take place in August 2014.
Image Source: Huffington Post