Civic engagement in Turkey’s democracy

Civic engagement in Turkey’s democracy

Sercan Çelebi*
For several decades and their corresponding generations in Turkey, politics has been the least preferred career option for the country’s talent. A combination of the almost regular military interventions in the democratic process since Turkey first moved to a multiparty system, numerous corruption scandals irreversibly degrading the reputation of politicians in the public eye, and fears based on the consequences of political activism in previous generations led Turkey’s youth to distance themselves from politics, as well as the civil society surrounding it.

In the aftermath of the Gezi resistance, the movement “Oy ve Ötesi” (Vote and Beyond) was formed with three concrete, concise and objective targets that, if executed well, would present an opportunity to train the forgotten muscle of collaboration toward impact. The three targets we chose to focus on were voter turnout, transparency around individual candidates and independent election monitoring. Further, the “Ötesi” (Beyond) component conveyed a clear glimpse of the founders’ vision that the approach and mechanisms could readily be replicated into any area of civic engagement in democratic processes. 

The first objective of Oy ve Ötesi was to increase voter turnout. The result of Oy ve Ötesi’s campaigns was a record-high voter turnout of nearly 90 percent. Second, Oy ve Ötesi aimed to facilitate the link between candidates and voters. In the current system where candidates are determined centrally rather than through a primary election, the “customer” for a candidate is first and foremost the party leadership. The result is that voters, particularly in urban areas with large populations, typically do not even know the name of the MP for whom they are voting. Our second objective was that, as voters demand greater access to the individuals meant to represent them, political parties would inescapably and naturally need to shift their mechanisms toward greater inclusion of voter preferences. 

The third objective of Oy ve Ötesi, the one that gained the most public attention, was election monitoring. Especially in the last couple of decades, concerns and outcries about election fraud have been commonplace in national media. Regardless of the winners and losers of the race, the fact that people did not trust the election results was in and of itself a problem. Oy ve Ötesi set the difficult but achievable target of independently monitoring the 30,000-plus voting stations in Istanbul – Turkey’s largest city – for the March 2014 local elections. One of the most inspiring aspects was the fact that 97 percent of the volunteers assigned a role in the process actually showed up, signaling strong ownership for and the credibility of the Oy ve Ötesi initiative. The message was clear: owning the process, at your own voting station or at a district level depending on your resources and priorities, is a tangible and constructive way to being part of the solution.

It is essential to highlight the underlying reason that makes independent monitoring particularly important in Turkey. The system gives a strong upper hand to any political party that can cover more ballot boxes and cover them with better trained representatives. Thus, balancing the playing field for all political parties at the ballot box lies at the heart of Oy ve Ötesi’s mission. 

Immediately after the election, Oy ve Ötesi declared that no systematic discrepancy large enough to impact the results and/or suspicious enough to cloud the credibility of the election day was observed in the areas covered by our volunteers. That said, non-standard/arbitrary practice by officials, random restrictions to observer access, improper stamping of voting papers, attempts to verbally persuade elderly voters and taking pictures of the polling papers in the cabins were commonly observed practices. Further, it is rather difficult to rule out the possibility that the fact that we observed a fair election was partly a result of our preemptive approach. 

All in all, our hypothesis fully supports our conclusion with respect to the presence of independent observers on election day: until the day all competing parties are equally successful at covering voting stations, Oy ve Ötesi’s presence will be integral to the transparency and credibility of election day.

* Sercan Çelebi is the co-founder and chairman of Oy ve Ötesi. This is an abridged version of the original article in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Winter 2015 issue.