Civil body Vote and Beyond to monitor presidential polls
Barçın Yinanç ISTANBUL
‘The initiative really lies with the people who are physically present during the time of voting and counting. When that is not balanced, of course the process is open to manipulation,’ says Çelebi. HÜRRİYET Photo / Levent KuluOne of the most prominent new initiatives to emerge from last year’s Gezi Park protests is “Vote and Beyond,” a non-partisan citizens’ group monitoring electoral practice in Turkey. The group made a big impact in the March 30 local elections and is now looking to expand its operations in the upcoming presidential and general elections.
“For the first time ever, my generation took part in a political process without having official ties to politics, and it made a difference … A very large group is now mobilized to make changes,” co-founder Sercan Çelebi told the Hürriyet Daily News in an exclusive interview.
“People saw that differences were not as great or as irreversible as the polarized political rhetoric claims. Our volunteers want to continue in projects where they have a chance to interact with people from socio-economic backgrounds that they are not typically in touch with … There is a social integration aspect to it. The moment they started to interact, they realized that although they might have different worldviews this is by no means a reason to be enemies,” he added.
Tell us about “Vote and Beyond.”
The Gezi Park protests inspired “Vote and Beyond.” It was established by a group of young people who participated in the Gezi protests but who were not previously involved in politics. Firstly, these young people saw that we had to be involved in certain processes in order to make where we live a better place. Secondly, we saw that we were not the only ones feeling this way. A lot of people from different backgrounds participated in Gezi, so the argument that “I am alone in this” was no longer valid. Thirdly, if people start taking action they can get concrete results. At the end of the day, the park was not demolished. They saw that they can have an impact if they act.
We founded “Vote and Beyond” as eight friends. The idea was this: After people retreated from the street protests, debates started as to what could be done. Everybody was talking about changing the justice system, the education system, etc. We, on the other hand, wanted to canalize the energy of Gezi into a more concrete, short-term project. We gave ourselves an achievable target. We wanted to have a success story so that people could see that they can make a difference. So we aimed for the March 30 local elections. As there were so many claims about electoral fraud that we decided to gather a volunteer organization about these claims, equidistant to all political parties. The sole purpose was to monitor to ensure that everything on election day took place according to rules and regulations in a democratic and transparent way. There were approximately 32,000 ballot boxes in Istanbul, and we assigned 27,000 volunteers. More than 26,000 of these volunteers - that is 95 percent - woke up at five o’clock that morning and worked until five the next morning.
How did you reach so many people?
We had 39 districts with 1,600 schools and 32,090 ballot boxes in Istanbul. We started from our own circle and determined those responsible for the districts from among our friends and relatives. Social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook were instrumental in reaching out. Reports in the mainstream media were also helpful. We reached 35,000 volunteers and we were active in 35 of Istanbul’s 39 districts. In the end we were able to monitor 97 percent of the total votes in Istanbul.
But there were many allegations of fraud.
As far as voting and counting is concerned, we did not see anything that would affect the overall results. Of course there were some discrepancies, but these were not systemic.
You seem to have fulfilled an important mission, as some people do not trust state institutions, arguing that they are under government control.
Our priority was precisely to eliminate these hesitations as an independent organization. For the first time ever, my generation took part in a political process without having official ties to politics, and it made a difference. When it comes to fraud, on the one hand we have an electoral system that is at international standards on paper. But when it comes to implementation, we observed serious shortcomings.
What are they?
The system depends on the field organizational skills of all political parties being on a par with each other. It is thought that if each political party has a ballot box observer, they would balance each other out and there wouldn’t be any need for us. But we have seen that things don’t work like that in practice; there are some parties that are exceptionally good at this and other parties that are negligent, despite their decades of experience. We truly need a platform that is distant from politics to support this process. Our volunteers corrected the irregularities that were against both the government and the opposition. We need to have a civil organization working until political parties are on a par in their organizational skills.
We also saw how those who are leading such an important process are often poorly informed about the rules and regulations. Each ballot box observance committee consists of seven people. They are all employees of the High Council of Elections (YSK). They are supposed to be trained; they should know what the rules and due processes are. But we saw that most of them either skipped training, or slept during the training, or for whatever reason had no idea about the legislation. At the beginning, for instance, each had a different reaction to the presence of our volunteers. Fortunately, we had a very strong legal presence.
You had a huge preparation process.
We had three channels of training. When we sent our volunteers to the ballot boxes we made sure that they knew what they were talking about. We had online training; we had online video content, a little bulletin. We had small get together training sessions, “train the trainee”-type training. We also had larger training sessions for over 1,500 people. We trained 8,000-9,000 volunteers on a one-to-one basis. Most of the calls we got on election day were from people saying, “I came as a volunteer but now I’m the boss here; I’m the only one knows the legislation.” We had a call center for emergencies and we got a total of 5,000 calls. When people called to ask a question, we sometimes said, “Ask the head of the committee.” The reply to this was, “He is here; he’s the one asking.”
How do these two factors affect elections?
The whole system is supposed to work transparently, under the assumption that ballot boxes are covered equally by political parties. If that is not the case - if for example you and I are the only ones monitoring ballot boxes and we are from the same political party - then there are lots of instances where the initiative lies with the ballot box committee. For example, people are not allowed to be escorted to the ballot box, but there were many cases on polling day - especially with elderly voters - in which people were escorted to the ballot box.
Will you keep up the momentum?
I think so. Ninety-four percent of our volunteers have said they wanted to be involved again and we have started organizing for the presidential election. This time we’ll include Ankara, İzmir, Bursa and Adana as well, which together make up around a third of the total population. The interest is really impressive. Our motto is that if you really believe in something you will find a way, and if you don’t you will find an excuse. There should be no excuses like saying that cities are too far away and we don’t have networks. We will find ways to make this happen. The presidential election will be a stepping stone for expanding “Vote and Beyond” to other cities in the subsequent general election.
Who is Sercan Çelebi
Sercan Çelebi is the co-founder and spokesperson of "Vote and Beyond," a nongovernmental organization that emerged ahead of the March 30 local elections.
Çelebi holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics and international studies from Yale University. He is the chief operating officer at Studyo Group of Companies, the Istanbul-based umbrella company with a broad range of investments, primarily focused on different areas of mainstream and social media.
He has taken part in several international projects, including the COPA Argentinean Universities Program in Buenos Aires and at the International Institute for Political and Economical Studies (IIPES) in Crete, Greece.