After weeks of tension and uncertainty, there was an almost carnival atmosphere at polling stations in Istanbul on 30 March—at least during the daytime. The sun shone from a crisp, blue sky, and there was a sense among government supporters and detractors alike that Turkey’s long spiral into political crisis since the outbreak of anti-government protests last summer could somehow be arrested or reversed by the one thing the country has long prided itself on doing well: elections. News channels carried heart-warming fluff stories about some of the country’s oldest citizens turning out to vote, and journalists joked about the sartorial choices of the various candidates. The turnout—eight-seven percent—was of a level most democracies only dream of.
“I’m optimistic,” said Gizem, twenty-two, a student of molecular biology and genetics, who was casting her vote in the neighborhood of Okmeydanı, a hub of recent unrest. “I think people have got to the point where they feel that the country is at war. They will realize that the Republic is being dissolved and that our rights aren’t being protected.”
Gizem was planning to vote for the People’s Republican Party (CHP), but her words could equally easily have come from a supporter of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. That is a measure of just how bitter the political discourse has become here: viewed across the barricades, one’s adversaries are enemies and traitors threatening the very fabric of the nation. Turkey has been portrayed on both sides as being embroiled in a life-or-death battle for survival. On election day, each was firmly convinced their side would “win.”
We don’t know the exact results yet, because the country’s Supreme Electoral Board has not officially announced them. According to Anadolu Ajansi, Turkey’s state news agency, the percentages of the main parties were: AKP: 45.5 percent, CHP: 27.8 percent, and MHP: 15.2 percent, respectively. The Gülen-linked Cihan News Agency, on the other hand, has them at: 43.3 percent, 25.6 percent, and 17.6 percent, respectively. Neither of these organizations has a sterling reputation for impartiality, but let us say that the Justice and Development Party has won around forty-five percent of the vote. Erdoğan retained the main prize of Istanbul, and in Ankara, the other key battlefield, the CHP has applied for the election to be cancelled and rerun after the AKP incumbent won by a slender margin.
In a balcony speech that evening, Erdoğan proclaimed that “the nation” had delivered “a full Ottoman slap” to its various shadowy enemies. Pro-government columnists enthusiastically picked up the beat: “The 30 March local elections will be written into the annals of Turkey`s history of democracy in golden letters,” wrote Nagehan Alçı, in one of the many typically effusive columns in the instructive new pro-government English-language Daily Sabah. “Forty-six percent support for the AK Party demonstrates the victory of the public protecting its will,” she wrote.
The lack of irony with which Erdoğan and his backers portray these elections as some kind of comprehensive statement of support is stunning. The absurdity is obvious when you look at the results. Yes, around forty-five percent of Turks voted for Erdoğan’s party, but another forty-five percent divided their votes between two parties whose leaders portrayed him as a criminal unfit to hold office.
What most analysts had not pointed out beforehand was that the AKP had already framed the criteria for victory in terms that made it almost impossible for the party to lose. The opposition foolishly accepted those criteria, rather than insisting on fighting the elections as what they were: local polls that should have been determined by local issues. Turkey’s three opposition parties have core bases of support that are all significantly lower than the AKP’s, and the AKP has a grassroots party organization whose effectiveness leaves its opponents in the dust (with the exception of the Peace and Democracy Party). It also has the ability to marshal the considerable resources of the state—and most television media—in its favor.
The benchmark for success set by the AKP was widely interpreted as anything above Turkey’s previous local election results of 2009, when it received about thirty-nine percent of the vote. The comparison is not really apt, however, because that election was not a highly polarized referendum on Erdoğan; around sixteen per cent of Turks cast their votes for smaller parties. Also, in 2009, Turkey was in a recession amid the global financial crisis. Add to this the fact that a recent redistricting of metropolitan municipalities has in general benefited the AKP. In the latest polls, thirty-nine percent was pretty much at the bottom of the broad spread of pollsters’ predictions for the AKP vote.
The corruption allegations? It should not really come as a surprise that in a country where levels of trust between people and institutions are the lowest in the OECD, people are skeptical of revelations pushed into the public arena by a shadowy quasi-masonic network “headquartered” in the United States. In the entire lead up to the campaign, I did not meet a single AKP supporter who told me that the corruption allegations had changed their opinion of the party. Not only that, but in the many articles published on the subject, I did not see a single interview in which an AKP supporter expressed that opinion. In Turkey, no source—official or unofficial—is seen as reliable when the information it puts out undermines one’s own political platform. On the other hand, information that reinforces one’s stance is quickly and enthusiastically embraced, no matter the source. Both these tendencies have been amply displayed in recent weeks.
So Turkey’s 2014 local elections bespeak deep polarization. Sadly, that is not nearly the worst thing about them. A rundown of what happened during the course of a long election night seems in order. As results emerged, wide differences appeared between those results published by the state news agency, Anadolu, and the Gülenist-run Cihan. Cihan, as well as the websites of newspapers backed by the Gülen movement, came under sustained cyber attack (which has since continued) and were offline for most of the night. Some of these newspapers reported that their internet connections were intermittently down. Power blackouts, which the opposition claimed were suspicious, afflicted some forty cities, with vote counting continuing in some places by candlelight. The divergence between Anadolu and Cihan gradually reduced as the count progressed, and was likely caused by Anadolu focusing more on pro-government areas at the start of its count, or vice versa.
At a surprisingly early stage in the evening, while the count was still well underway, the main television channels began breathlessly reporting that Erdoğan was “leaving his home”—in fact, for his triumphant balcony speech. In Ankara, where both candidates claimed victory, it emerged that the count had been halted at around one in the morning in two of the largest opposition neighborhoods, at a moment when the race was neck and neck.
During the night and the next day, allegations of localized electoral fraud emerged from across the country. The volume and variety of the allegations are so dizzyingly large it is hard to keep up with them. According to one calculation, one or other competing party has requested full recounts in sixteen of Turkey’s eighty-one provinces, and in more than a hundred races for smaller districts. Among the more prominent places where malfeasance has been suggested are Ankara, Istanbul’s neighborhoods of Kağıthane and Uskudar, Antalya, and Yalova. This list is not nearly exhaustive. The KCK, the civilian wing of the PKK, has alleged that in Kurdish-populated regions, twelve separate provinces and districts were the subject of rigging; this includes the border town of Ceylanpınar, in Urfa province, a town that lies at a strategically significant point on the Syrian border, next to a town controlled by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate.
The claims mainly center on the report sheets from individual ballot boxes, copies of which were taken by hand to central processing areas, where they were inputted into computers run by the electoral commission in order to tally up vote totals. These totals were then published on the commission’s website. Activists who had taken photos of the original return sheets were able to compare them and claim to have unearthed many instances in which the results were apparently changed in order to benefit the ruling party. There were also reports from several places around the country of ballot papers being found discarded in dustbins or burned.
The hypothesis put forward by critics was that the AKP effectively “stage-managed” a landslide by ensuring that Anadolu Ajansi, which was providing information to the media, counted pro-government districts before opposition ones, creating the impression of overwhelming wins in areas that were in fact highly contested. Suat Kınıklıoğlu campaign manager for Mansur Yavaş, the CHP challenger in Ankara, stated:
There was a well-planned effort to monopolize information going to television stations that night. Independent news organizations were obstructed from producing data. At the beginning of the night, extremely negative results for Mansur Yavas aimed at demoralizing the observers at the ballot boxes throughout Ankara so they would leave their posts. Once an observer leaves his post, it becomes much easier to carry out fraud.
This, combined with Erdoğan’s thundering victory speech, would encourage the opposition to concede defeat. Opposition areas would be counted for real as late in the stage as possible, amid power cuts and the presence of large numbers of AKP activists, to create confusion and the possibility of piecemeal discounting or switching of opposition votes. In fact, an anonymous writer purporting to be a lawyer observing the elections in Ankara also described this:
On the day of elections, at 16.30 approximately, thirty AKP affiliates arrived to the little school of a village where I was responsible during the counts. They were objecting during the counting of the votes and took advantage of the demoralization of people after the AA agency reported falsely about the number of votes, resulting in people leaving the ballot boxes alone, and AKP affiliates to destroy the votes. This is the main reason why the votes in Cankaya and Yenimahalle came so late. They were constantly objecting and protesting in order to cause this delay. In the meantime the AKP announced its victory only to cause further demoralization. They used the same technique in Istanbul too.
So far I have been unable to contact the individual who wrote this account or to confirm this testimony.
It will take a long time to establish what happened in these elections. Erik Meyersson, a Swedish economist who has studied Turkey’s previous elections, has compiled charts that suggest that the possibility of systematic manipulation should be taken seriously. It is crucial to note, however, that the results as they stand more or less exactly fall in the middle of pre-poll predictions. Thus, the results in and of themselves are not particularly unexpected.
The more important point, for now at least, is that while the electoral process has been vindicated in the eyes of one half of the population, it has been badly tarnished in the eyes of another substantial chunk, and the supporters of the main opposition parties are likely to carry on doubting the integrity of the process regardless of the actual truth. It could also work against the AKP in the long run. The results have provoked serious tension in hitherto relatively peaceful provinces such as Antalya, and also in various places throughout the Kurdish region. It also may push the MHP and CHP to co-operate more effectively than they have hitherto, and there are signs that it is triggering a surge in grassroots activism on behalf of the CHP, particularly in Ankara. There is a risk that elections in the future will become more tense and violent affairs.
For what is now Turkey’s most pressing problem—its deepening polarization—this election outcome could not have been worse. For one large section of the population, Erdoğan’s legitimacy and reputation shine brighter than ever. For another large swathe of it, another crime has been added to the AKP’s charge sheet: manipulating an election while publicly insisting on the sanctity of the ballot box.
In recent months, I have often thought about a meeting I had a couple of years ago with Bülent Keneş, the editor of Today’s Zaman. I went to his office to interview him about the Balyoz coup plot trial for an article I was writing. The trial was another example of the way in which competing camps in Turkish society generate entirely different realities based on entirely different sets of facts. To one camp, the Balyoz suspects were innocent victims framed by a travesty of justice; to the other, they were coup plotters who had been caught red-handed and were paying the price. Keneş gestured to a glass of tea on his desk. “Look,” he said, “in Turkey you have one group of people who say the glass of tea is here.” He shifted it to the other side of the table. “And you have another group who say it is here. It cannot be in both places. Outsiders come here and think, well, it must be somewhere in the middle. But it’s not in the middle; it’s where we say it is! It’s here!”
It is a reflection of the unpredictability of Turkish politics that since I had that meeting with Keneş, the situation has changed radically. He now finds himself in more or less the same “tea glass” as the former elites against whom he once sparred over the Balyoz trial. The Today’s Zaman website is under cyber attack, its internet connection is being intermittently cut, and Keneş himself is being sued by Erdoğan for joking about the sound of his voice on Twitter. If, as some fear, elections are no longer a means by which Turkish society can exorcise its demons, and if the AKP is determined to circumvent all legal barriers to maintain its hegemony, it is extremely hard to see Turkey developing in a way that can address the aspirations of all its citizens, rather merely forty-five percent of them. But then, as exemplified by Keneş and the unfortunate predicament of Today’s Zaman, Turkey is an unpredictable place.