Turkey’s new election law sparks questions over ballot box safety

Turkey’s new election law sparks questions over ballot box safety

A draft law overhauling Turkey’s Election Law and Political Parties Law was submitted to parliament this week by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The draft was submitted a day after the two parties announced that they have established what they call a “People’s Alliance” for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

This alliance will work to the advantage of both parties. The MHP will be able to enter parliament even if it fails to garner sufficient votes to pass the 10 percent general election threshold. The AKP will be one step closer to having President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan elected as the executive-president in the first round of presidential elections slated for November 2019.

This legal change could also stimulate other minor parties, like the Great Union Party (BBP), to try to join the AKP-MHP alliance in return for a few seats in parliament.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have strongly criticized the changes, saying they violate the criteria for fair elections.

CHP Deputy Parliamentary Group Chair Özgür Özel described the changes as an “indecent proposal” intended to “hijack the people’s will” for the benefit of two parties. He also suggested that the changes would pave the way for election fraud. HDP spokesman Ayhan Bilgen said the changes were specifically aimed at preventing his party from achieving success in the polls. The İYİ (Good) Party, meanwhile, has opted to remain silent on these changes, perhaps planning to form its own alliance or join an existing one.

These new changes can be examined under two main headings. The first is about election safety.

According to the opposition parties, the new rules significantly violate election security. One of the most important changes is that ballot boxes can be relocated “due to security concerns.” Government officials say this article corresponds to the situation in eastern and southeastern Anatolia, citing concerns that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) could impose pressure on voters.

The AKP applied to the Supreme Election Board (YSK) for the relocation of ballot boxes in the 2015 elections but the YSK did not approve at that time. Now, the AKP is allowing this change to take place through legislation.

Another important change is that law enforcement officials will now be able to monitor voting process even more closely, again due to “security concerns.” They will be allowed to enter the sites where people are casting their votes, prompting concerns that voters will be negatively affected by their presence. Again, this measure is said to be taken out of concern for the situation in eastern and southeastern Anatolia.

The draft law brings about another important change. In the April 2017 referendum, the use of around 2.5 million unstamped ballot papers created deep suspicion and bitter political disputes over election safety. This latest bill removes potential discussions on the same issue, saying all unstamped envelopes will be valid. This has the potential to cast a huge shadow over poll security.

The overhaul of the election law also includes changes to the composition of ballot box committees, which have up to now carried important responsibilities for election safety. Until today, the head of these committees has been selected by lots among the representatives of the four political parties with the most votes in that particular constituency and a representative of the YSK. With the new law, the head of balloting committees will be selected from among senior public officials by the YSK’s provincial branches. This is being regarded as a measure to prevent HDP and CHP representatives from serving as heads of ballot box committees.

The second aspect of these changes is about forming pre-election alliances. It allows political parties to establish formal alliances but with the opportunity to use their names and logos on ballot papers. The votes cast for either component of the alliance will be counted on behalf of that alliance. Even if one or more of the parties fails to pass the 10 percent election threshold, as long as their alliance passes the threshold they will be given seats in parliament.

That means political parties that are part of an alliance will not be subject to the election threshold, while independently running political parties will still need to win at least 10 percent of the vote nationally for parliamentary presentation. This is being widely seen as unfair and a further violation of the constitutional principle of equality.

The changes will also have concrete results in the distribution of parliamentary seats among parties that have been able to pass the election threshold. Thanks to the existing “d’Hondt” system, known as the “highest average method,” the AKP and the MHP will win more seats when their votes are counted together.

In sum, the alliance established by the AKP and the MHP is now aiming to change election rules to their own benefit at the expense of further harming election security and the fair representation of the people’s will at parliament.

Serkan Demirtaş, hdn, Opinion