Despite a massive local election defeat, Turkey’s right-wing president is attempting a desperate power grab

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On Sunday 31 March, Turkey went to the polls to vote in local elections. Current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suffered a major defeat in his AKP ruling strongholds of Istanbul and Ankara. The Canary was on the ground to monitor the elections with other observers from the UK and Europe.

Following the attempted coup in 2016, Erdoğan seized control of municipalities. He then replaced 100 mayors with AKP kayyums (‘trustees’). We were told 94 of these mayors were from the left-wing HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party). A large number of elected mayors, including all those from the big Kurdish cities, were imprisoned. But across the Kurdish regions, the HDP won back municipalities in the elections.

Erdoğan, however, is not accepting defeat and is challenging the results across Turkey. We have been told the final results are due on Sunday 7 April – a week after the election took place.

This is not what a democracy looks like

The situation prior to the election was similar to the general election The Canary reported on in June 2018. During that election, Kurdish MP Hişyar Özsoy, deputy chair for foreign affairs of the HDP, stated:

We are doing this under emergency rule, where we don’t have access to media. Our chairs are in prison. So many politicians are in prison. So many people were detained… We haven’t been able to carry out a campaign. Not all candidates had equal access to the media and other opportunities that were available to the ruling party.

The vast majority of Turkey’s broadcast media is loyal to Erdoğan. Given that Reporters without Borders has described Turkey as one of the biggest jails for journalists in the world, it’s impossible for opposition candidates to access the same exposure and publicity as opposition candidates.

Other problems

Other problems involved irregularities with voter registration. This included issues with voting lists, such as one apartment with over 1,000 people registered to vote, and one voter ‘aged 165’. Problems were also reported with the government registering new voters in Kurdish areas. Speaking to the UK delegation ahead of the elections, HDP MP Feleknas Uca said:

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Before, in different elections there were leaks that thousands of new voters were registered in the Kurdish region. Not only were imaginary voters produced, but also police forces could vote in the Kurdish region in order to change the election result. For example, in Lice, in a previous election, only 23 voters were registered in a village. But 94 votes were in the results… Soldiers and the police had been voting for the AKP in that village.

Election observations

The UK delegation observed the elections in the Elazığ province of Karakoçan. Although we were allowed into some polling stations in the morning, the police quickly became unhappy with our presence. Our passports were taken and photographed on several occasions.

In the afternoon, the atmosphere of intimidation increased. Large numbers of uniformed and plainclothes police officers were present at one polling station, and we were angrily told that we would not be allowed to visit anymore.

Meanwhile, it was clear that the Turkish state did not want observers present at the elections. We were told 14 independent international observers were deported when they arrived in the country. UK journalist Steve Sweeney was also deported, and I was detained for two hours at Istanbul airport and threatened with deportation. Eventually, I was allowed to stay after having missed my connecting flight. Two Italian observers were also arrested in Hani, Amed (Diyarbakır) on the day of the election.

As the UK delegation wrote:

There is no sense in which these local elections were free and fair or conducted on a level playing field. Particularly in the Kurdish regions, there was an intimidating police presence and, in lots of cases, a military presence. The state’s refusal, in many areas, to allow independent international observers to monitor the voting process speaks volumes, and the overwhelming dominance of the ruling AKP on broadcast media left very little space for opposition voices to be heard.

Meanwhile, a member of the French delegation said that the election “felt like war, not an election”.

Clinging on to power

Although the establishment media in the UK has reported that Erdoğan is challenging the results in Ankara and Istanbul, it’s less widely reported that the results have been postponed across Turkey. But as the Guardian stated, the AKP is challenging results in “30 cities, 51 provincial capitals and 922 districts”.

The Canary spoke to Hülya Alökmen, the newly elected mayor of Amed. She said:

They’re trying to postpone us going into office. They know that the results won’t change but despite this they’re objecting the results. It takes 48 hours to have the results for disputing the elections. They are postponing the results in all of Turkey.

And even though the AKP lost control of Amed, Alökmen said the government was trying to make things “difficult”. She continued:

Today they employed 30 people not authorised in one of our municipality…They should not be doing this. They’re already making difficulties for us. They’re removing hardware in the municipalities so we won’t have what we need.

Continuous intimidation

The evidence of this ‘difficulty’ is everywhere. There are always police present outside the HDP office in Amed. But as we entered the HDP offices to speak to Alökmen, this presence had massively increased with riot police lining the pavement with long shields. When we asked about their presence, HDP supporters said it was normal.

Alökmen also said that in the run-up to the election, the police made 200 arrests and raided the HDP office three times.

Although Alökmen and other Kurdish politicians we spoke to were optimistic that they would be able to take over running the cities again, they are doing so in this climate of fear and intimidation.

This is a crucial time for Turkey and the Kurdish regions. Erdoğan needs to know the world is watching – and not just in the big cities.

During the election campaign, the HDP worked tactically with the main opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party) to oust Erdoğan. And the HDP is now hopeful that the new political situation will lead to dialogue and peace.

This was a devastating result for Erdoğan, especially given the problems opposition parties face. But the next few days are crucial in seeing whether his party respects the vote or whether Erdoğan continues this desperate power grab and tramples over what little remains of Turkish democracy.

The author was part of the UK delegation.

Featured image via YouTube – PBS NewsHour / author’s own

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