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Digital Platforms, Analog Elections: How Civic Groups Are Trying to Bring Back Democracy in Turkey

[Members of Journos at work on election night. Image by Oğulcan Ekiz.] [Members of Journos at work on election night. Image by Oğulcan Ekiz.]

When Gezi protesters occupied the park last summer and took their frustration with the government to the streets, Prime Minister Erdoğan told them to “be patient and face off at the ballot box.” It was exactly Erdoğan’s reductive framing of democracy, which limits political legitimacy to elections and takes an uncompromising, polarizing stance against opposition, that Gezi protesters stood against. Nonetheless, unlike similar political movements in the United States and Western Europe that have abandoned electoral politics, Gezi protesters took Erdoğan’s call seriously and owned up to their votes on 30 March. Their movement could not grow into a political party that would conjoin the grievances of the multitude in the park, and the opposition parties could not respond to the pluralistic and active citizenship that the protesters demanded. But the distrust in institutional politics did result in a number of civic initiatives that mobilized thousands of volunteers to act in a watchdog capacity during and after the elections last Sunday.  

It is fair to say that citizens in Turkey, no matter on which side of the political spectrum they stood, were challenged by technology on a number of levels during local elections. I am not just talking about Prime Minister Erdoğan’s vow to “wipe out” Twitter and the like—which he did try to an extent, although he lifted the ban after elections. People from all walks of life in Turkey had already mastered access to social media via VPNs and Tor before last Sunday, but they could not foresee how smart their smart phones had become. The government had postponed daylight savings time for a day due to elections. Turkey’s nearly ten million smart phone users, however, saw that their phones changed to daylight saving time automatically. Hence, brief chaos ensued in the early hours of the day, when many people rushed to the polling stations only to find that they had to wait for an hour. 

“That day required extraordinary measures to coordinate,” says Engin Önder, co-founder of 140journos, Turkey’s popular citizen journalism network that has been documenting news on Twitter since 2012. (Full disclosure: I have been a member of 140journos since 2013). 140journos is one of those civic groups that has focused on reporting on local elections to ensure that the day ran smoothly and transparently. They have already been working on a new platform, Journos, which would verify, curate, and explain the hundreds of citizen reports they receive every day. 30 March was important for them because they had partnered with other citizen watchdog groups, such as Vote and Beyond, to test their new tools. “We knew it was going to be a challenging day,” Engin tells me, but “what happened on 30 March and the following couple of days was beyond our expectations.” 

Journos’s team of twenty volunteers spent Sunday sifting through thousands of tweets coming in from many cities and towns in Turkey until the voting concluded. They documented objections at the polling stations and conflicts between the police and people who wanted to observe voting and ballot-counts. They shared those reports both in Turkish and English, thereby speaking to a broader audience than usual. “Two things threw off our efforts on the day of the elections,” Engin recalls. First, their partnership with watchdog groups fell through, in the midst of the increasing tension and polarization that loomed over almost every ballot box in Turkey. Second, they tweeted a letter of complaint that turned out to be forged. Even though they immediately corrected that false report, it did not stop their followers from questioning their credibility and attacking them in the midst of a day highly charged with tension.   

It was only after five pm, when voting concluded around Turkey, that Journos began an extraordinary journey of citizen reporting and civic action. As soon as the counting kicked off at the ballot boxes, Turkey’s Twitter timeline was swarming with reports of fraud, power outages, and paper ballots found in trash bins. Calls for people to go to local polling stations to watch the counting were circulating. And the mainstream media, with reports coming in from two news agencies, were reporting totally conflicting results. Journos asked its followers to tweet the results from ballot boxes. Citizens who were already at polling stations started taking pictures of the ballot box results and sent them to Journos, using the hashtag #SandıkTutanağı. Engin says they have never experienced such voluminous response from citizens on one day (bear in mind that they were actively reporting during the Gezi Protests). Thousands of reports reached Journos via Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, and SMS messaging only in a couple of hours.  

As Journos kept on receiving and documenting those results through the early hours of 31 March, people in front of their television and computer screens witnessed this: in Ankara, where the votes had been swaying between the AKP candidate Melih Gökçek and the CHP’s Mansur Yavaş, vote-count pages stopped refreshing. At the time, a sizeable portion of votes were left to be counted in two neighborhoods that are CHP strongholds, and Gökçek was leading by only three thousand votes. For almost an hour, there was no incoming data. In the meantime, citizens reported that the Interior Minister, Efkan Ala, arrived at a polling station with riot police, while Melih Gökçek went to the building that houses the Supreme Electoral Board (YSK). When the data page was finally refreshed, people saw that all the results were uploaded at once, and Gökçek was leading by twenty thousand votes. Whether or not that pause meant fraud, people’s concerns with the process skyrocketed, and reports of ballot box results soared on Twitter.

Given the deluge of data that Journos received, Engin says they knew they needed a larger team of volunteers. They were looking at all those results piling up in their database while hearing various complaints and doubts about the official counting process. Therefore, they teamed up with another civic group, Ayağa Kalk Taksim, to keep on verifying and documenting the results coming in from citizens. They also reached out to Igal Nassima, a programmer and artist who is also a member of Journos, and Burak Arikan, an artist working with complex networks. Igal and Burak are both based in New York and have been working on alternative software for vote counting. They told the team in Istanbul that they needed two more hours to finish up their work. As Burak and Igal worked through the night collaborating with volunteers in Istanbul, live-coding updates and responding to volunteers’ needs as modifications were made, Engin says they witnessed the launch of Turkey’s first citizen vote counting system.

With new software and a bigger team of volunteers, Journos spent Monday through Tuesday morning contrasting results coming in from citizens with the official results uploaded on the website of Turkey’s electoral board. They created a Facebook group, “Seçim 2014,” and invited trusted friends to join them in verification. Their network grew to nearly three hundred volunteers who relentlessly verified the nearly two thousand ballot box results they had received. On the morning of 1 April, when official complaints about elections were due, they documented nearly two hundred and fifty irregularities. “This is the first time citizens counted their own votes in Turkey,” says Engin. “We made a call on social media, and in a couple of hours we have received more than six thousand responses. With software finalized in two hours and a team of two hundred volunteers, we reported the irregularities and challenged results in Istanbul and Ankara,” he tells me with a defiant grin.


[A map showing the work of Journos in the days after the election. Image via Facebook.]

What followed their complaint—and the CHP’s parallel efforts—is, however, only a snapshot of how democracy and the rule of law have become hollowed-out concepts in Turkey. When protesters gathered in front of the Electoral Board calling for a recount of the Ankara result, riot police fired water cannons to disperse the crowd. AKP officials condemned those volunteers and demonstrators who persevered in protesting outside polling stations and verifying ballot box results. “Their only goal is to create chaos,” said Melih Gökçek of those civic acts. When asked about the electricity failure in at least four districts of Ankara and in forty cities across Turkey, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz gave a mind-boggling response: “This is really not a joke. The power was out because a cat got into a transformer station.” Most importantly, the Ankara Election Board has rejected the CHP’s appeal for recounting votes, despite the documentation of election fraud in numerous ballot boxes.

I asked Engin what their motivation was during the three sleepless days they spent reporting and verifying election results. “We founded Journos because we believe in people’s right to know,” he tells me. “And in this particular case, we are not necessarily concerned with who wins the elections but how they win.” Engin emphasizes that they have documented irregularities that could work in favor of every political party, including the AKP. “We are quite worried about the current political and media system in Turkey,” Engin adds, “and we want our broadcast to provoke people to interrogate what the system tells them.” I press him a little and remind him that their efforts could not change much, so why continue? At first, he does not even understand my question. He then explains that we need people to stop submitting to the state, capital, and the mainstream media. Until then, Journos will keep on doing what they are doing.

Is This the Democracy the West Yearns For?

On the night of 30 March, Prime Minister Erdoğan jubilantly greeted his supporters and gave a harsh speech, declaring that his opponents had received an “Ottoman slap” in the elections. He said his enemies in politics and the state would pay the price after this victory. Tapping into the populist nationalist sensitivities of his political base, he signaled a war with Syria and defied the West. At one point during his highly polarizing remarks, he declared: “Turkey has the democracy that the West yearns for.” For those who had been documenting cases of election fraud and riot police at polling stations all day, Erdoğan’s quote might have seemed to be a joke. But I must admit I agree with him—to an extent. Here is why.

Last Sunday, Turkey had a voter turnout that Western countries could only dream of. Despite Erdoğan’s demonizing and polarizing rhetoric, young people in particular in Turkey cast their votes and followed up on how those votes were counted. They went to the polling stations to make sure everyone’s vote was registered. They stood against water cannons to call upon the Electoral Board to recount votes. While doing so, they kept their humorous wit to critique the ridiculous explanations that came from AKP officials.

In other democracies, such dismissal and demonizing from the government would either culminate in violence or in widespread apathy. On the contrary, Turkey’s defiant youth does not give up and continuously relies on civic action to affect change. That might be the democratic youth that the West yearns for. Engin, for example, says that Journos is now working on a web interface that will share all the ballot box results they have received with the public in a way that lets people run their own search. Citizens will be able to detect the discrepancies between the number of votes documented in paper ballots and the official results. They plan to carry forward this initiative to the next elections after improving its mechanics of verification and reporting.

While people in Turkey are relentlessly flexing their civic muscles, the un-response coming from the government is utterly unacceptable. People are not only polarized due to Erdoğan’s uncompromising rhetoric; they are also actively pushed away from political participation, as their complaints get rejected, votes might not get registered, and concerns are undermined. What sort of politics is necessary in Turkey’s democracy, where the executive power has a stranglehold on legislative changes, election outcomes, and even judicial decisions? What is to be done when the opposing youth’s civic efforts constantly come back empty-handed? While analysts are tripping over each other to criticize the lack of opposition in Turkey, these questions urgently need to be answered.

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