I have never contested the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) successive election victories with claims of electoral fraud. First, with the economy being the prevailing factor in voting behavior, and with a relatively good economic performance, it was not difficult for me to understand the rise in the AKP’s votes. Second, although Turkish democracy has many shortcomings, it has a long history of organizing fair and competitive elections. I am no expert obviously, but this is a prevailing conviction among political scientists in Turkey, as well as in international circles. However, developments following Dec. 17, 2013 give us reason to question whether the validity of this conviction could be shaken.
Two factors emerged following Dec. 17 that may make us to think that the fairness of the results for the upcoming March 30 municipal elections could be compromised.
The first one is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s culture of interference that jeopardizes the principle of the separation of powers and erodes confidence in Turkish institutions. Alleged audio recordings of Erdoğan’s conversations, some of which were directly confirmed by him, show we have a prime minister who sees no problem with interfering in anything that he thinks necessary. He interferes in elections for the president of a football club, giving tactics for the candidate he supports to win. He interferes in military tenders, trying to reverse the outcome in order to enable the company he supports to reapply for the tender. He even allegedly interfered in the judiciary, in one case in order to reverse the decision of the court that acquitted the owner of this newspaper.
In addition, Erdoğan’s reaction to the developments after Dec. 17 has shown us that many of the institutions that are supposed to be autonomous or semi-autonomous are under the control of the executive. The government started a purge of the Gülenists by accusing them of staging a coup to topple the government. Many people were replaced by what many think are AKP loyalists in institutions like the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), or the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB).
The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) has been another institution where the feud between Gülenists and the government has taken its toll.
After all this, how can we trust the High Election Board (YSK)? This is the worst thing that can happen to democratic societies: The lack of trust in state institutions.
The second factor that has come to the fore that creates concern about the fairness of election results is again about Erdoğan. He turned local elections into a vote of confidence. He wants to clear his hands from corruption accusations with the votes he will receive. By the same token, an electoral failure could start a process that could even land him in jail. As these elections have become a matter of survival for Erdoğan, some respectable political scientists I have talked to are voicing concern that Erdoğan could do anything, as he cannot afford to lose the elections.
Cem Toker, the chairman of the Liberal Party in Turkey, has penned an article listing his concerns of transparency and oversight with technical details, which was published in the winter issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly. As he has mobilized the liberals in the European Parliament, 18 MEP’s led by liberal Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake have sent a letter to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle to request that they set up an EU election observer mission for the monitoring of municipal elections.
The coalition government had resisted having international observers for the 2002 general elections that brought the AKP to power. It is good news that Erdoğan has said “they can come if they want,” for a possible EU observer mission.