International election monitoring in Turkey: too little too late

International election monitoring in Turkey: too little too late

Every time Turkey stumbles on its path towards a fully functioning democracy, critical voices rising from Europe talk about suspending the country’s accession talks with the European Union. 

“See, we told you so; Turkey is not and cannot be a democratic country. It’s futile to have accession negotiations with a country like Turkey,” is the logic of those under the delusion that they can live happily behind the walls of the castle of Europe. 

Rare would be wise voices in the line of, “If Turkey drifts away from democracy, then the best thing to do is to help revert it back to the democratic path.”

Turkey’s slide into an authoritarian regime under the governance of Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by the ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no novelty to Europeans. 

Until the mid-2000s, the democratic criteria of elections in Turkey were not subject to serious criticism, neither from inside nor outside. Aside from certain irregularities that did not have the potential of radically changing the outcome, elections results have never faced serious challenges, until the local elections in 2014. 

A sizeable portion of the society feels concerned about possible election fraud. Past irregularities might not have been significant in terms of the final outcome, yet the June 7 general elections are critical as the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) will try to pass the 10 percent threshold. Even one vote has the potential to affect the parliamentary composition and thus, the fate of Turkey’s democratic near future.  All this is no novelty to Europe. 

This was the time to support Turkish democracy and employ robust election monitoring teams.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is the human rights institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was established in 1991 in order to support the transition of former Communist countries to democratic governance. Over the years, it has acquired expertise in monitoring elections.

It seems that the Turkish government has waited for the last moment to invite the ODIHR. Following a needs assessment mission conducted April 14-17, ODIHR has asked member countries to contribute to its observation mission. According to the information I received, two days prior to the deadline, very few countries made the necessary notifications. The number was so low that the mission was almost cancelled.

Apparently, some of the diplomats from EU member countries have strongly advised their capitals to find the experts in order to avoid the cancellation. 

In the end, a mission was set up consisting of 11 international experts who will be based in Ankara and 18 long-term observers who have been deployed throughout the country from May 14 onward. This is only two people more than the last presidential elections, which was much easier to monitor and 10 people more than the 2011 elections.

While the mission will visit a limited number of polling stations on election day, systematic observation of voting, counting and the tabulation of results on election day is not envisaged.

In other words, the mission will focus on the pre-election period rather than the election day, which, of course, does not address Turkey’s real need. The country’s president is supposed to remain neutral in these elections. All state resources are being used in favor of the ruling party. Can the observation mission stop that at this stage? No, it has no such power. Will its findings after the elections, establishing facts about, let’s say, the president’s stance or the unbalanced media coverage make any difference? No. Yet a robust presence on the election day and especially in sensitive areas could have served as a pressure mechanism and been effective.

Of course, it is better than nothing. There will also be an OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Delegation, which will include 50 MPs, more than double the amount of the last time (20). Parliamentarians from Council of Europe will also be present during election day. While OSCE and Council of Europe parliamentarians are not experts like the ODIHR mission, their presence is still important. Being in the field and helping Turkey in its test of democracy is more important than writing reports from Brussels, Strasbourg or Geneva.