Security, media freedom not ideal for Turkey’s elections: OSCE

Security, media freedom not ideal for Turkey’s elections: OSCE

Serkan Demirtaş - ANKARA
Security, media freedom not ideal for Turkey’s elections: OSCE Deteriorated security conditions, especially in Turkey’s southeast, as well as attacks on political parties and on media freedom “do not make for an ideal situation” before the upcoming general election, the head of the OSCE’s election observer mission has said, following the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s history. 

Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, the head of the OSCE’s limited election observation mission, expressed his solidarity with the Turkish people over the horrifying Oct 10 bomb blasts that killed scores of people in Ankara. during which he made a comprehensive assessment on the state of security and of press freedom as well. 

“Here in our office, I and all our Turkish and international staff were horrified by the news about the terror attack. I express my sympathy with the families of those who have lost their lives,” Ahrens told the Hürriyet Daily News. 

Upon a question whether the Nov. 1 elections will be able to go ahead given Turkey’s poor security conditions, he said election security “is the task of the competent authorities.” 

“They would be the ones to answer your questions. We can only continue to observe developments,” he said. 

Could you share with us your general observations about the election environment in Turkey?

We have only just started this mission. We started this mission with a visit to the Foreign Ministry to discuss the working conditions of our mission. After that, we went to see the Supreme Board of Elections [YSK] and I had a discussion with Mr. Sadi Güven. We discussed a few things that are quite recent developments, such as the potential moving of ballot boxes. But these are just the first discussions. I am very hesitant to draw any conclusions at this point in time. 

But I can tell you what we have started to observe and what we think deserves attention. There are two new things: One is a deteriorated security situation in parts of the country and how this influences the conduct of elections that correspond both to OSCE and other international commitments and national legislation. Second there is the fact that this election comes shortly after the June 7 election, which of course influences the conduct of this election as it shortens periods and deadlines.

I have had some contacts with party representatives, and I tried to find out how the parties view these elections. But now it’s a little early. I have not seen Mr. [Kemal] Kılıçdaroğlu [leader of the Republican People’s Party] yet on this trip, but I met him twice before: This year and last year during the presidential election. I have never had a meeting with Mr. [Devlet] Bahçeli [leader of the Nationalist Movement Party). 

Have you made an application to meet Mr. Bahçeli?

Yes, of course. In May, I saw Mr. [Tuğrul] Türkeş. He was then the deputy head of the MHP, but he has since moved to the AKP so he is no longer an MHP contact. Today we were at the RTÜK [national media watchdog] and we had a good discussion with its chairman. I don’t want to be too negative about the MHP but I have had problems in contacting them. 

Will a meeting with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu be possible?

Well, during the presidential elections I was received by then Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan in his capacity as candidate. We had a 45-minute talk. Earlier this year I was not received by the Prime Minister [Davutoğlu] in his capacity as AKP chairman. For this election, we have asked whether a meeting will be possible but we have not yet received an answer. In the meantime, I will see someone else from the AKP. It’s of course important to see the leaders because you hear news from all sorts of sources and I think meeting leaders is one of the necessities of reasonable observation, so we can assess whether our information from the media, for example, is correct.

You mentioned security conditions. How do you think these will have an impact on the election?

We observe elections under international principles, according to the OSCE and other international commitments as well as national legislation. One of the conditions for democratic elections is that all those who have the right to vote can exercise this right without the threat of violence or any other pressure. It’s very important that there is an environment that voters will not refrain from voting in because they are afraid of what might happen, or because their polling station has been closed and the place they are supposed to go to is too far away and travelling there is too dangerous. Of course, these are the conditions we have to look at very carefully.  

But I am not a prophet and we never make predictions. I can only tell you that we look at these matters. One problem is that we have no short term observers of our own. So it’s very important that Turkish civil society organizations conduct widespread observations of these elections.

‘Special zones, curfews not good for campaigning’

A decision of the Supreme Election Board [YSK] not to move the locations of some ballot boxes in southeastern Turkey was recently under discussion. How do you evaluate this ruling?

As I said, this is of course one of the basic principles: That voters can vote at places where they are supposed to vote without the threat of violence or the threat of dramatic events taking place. This is, of course, a task for the police. I have met high officers of the Turkish police who expressed confidence that they will be able to provide such security.

On the other hand, as you know both the president and the prime minister criticized the YSK ruling to hold the voting in places where there might be danger. We can only observe this and see what happens, and also see whether this has an influence on the results by preventing people from voting. There are also special security zones and curfews in the southeast. This situation is not very good for campaigning in these areas. I do not want to give a premature assessment but the situation may be difficult. We have to assess this in time and that’s what we will do. 

The interior minister said there are 385,000 law enforcement officers to provide security. Are you convinced?

It’s very difficult to say, and I am not a security specialist. What we look at is whether security is provided in such a way that voters can vote freely. 

As for the violence, the security perspective, there was no such condition with the June 7 election. Can you compare the two situations?

Some insecurity was there in June too. For example, a terrorist attack at an HDP rally in Diyarbakır. Our two long-term observers were there and they witnessed it directly. Two other long-term observers were in the Adana building when the HDP office there was attacked. But you are right this was still a quieter situation than what we have now.

Your office is very close to the HDP HQ that was attacked a month ago. How do you assess attacks on political parties? 

It is of course not acceptable for party headquarters to be attacked, regardless of whether or not there is an election campaign. Before an election this is particularly problematic. We hear about scores of such attacks taking place against the HDP and some AKP offices. It is the task of the police to do everything possible to prevent such attacks and, once such an attack has taken place, to bring the attackers to court. I discussed this at the Interior Ministry. 

How did they respond?

When we mentioned these incidents, they confirmed that it is their task to provide a peaceful environment. They say they have confidence that the police are able to provide this. But as I said before, the conditions in the southeast of the country are not normal conditions for an election campaign.

More attacks on media freedom since summer

Violence is not only in the southeast. HDP party buildings and sympathetic journalists are also attacked. There is a spread of violence in Turkey at a different magnitude and scope. Do you think this situation promises a healthy climate?

These attacks on journalists - what happened to Mr. Ahmet Hakan, for instance - are absolutely unacceptable. We are following this situation closely.

Your final report on the June election cited media freedom as a serious concern. At the present time, how do you see this? Is your concern also valid for Nov. 1?

We will certainly not copy our previous final report when writing about this election. Of course, much remains the same, such as the situation concerning the legal system. On the media situation, we have now got more news about attacks on media freedom than we had in early summer. Of course, we are follow this very closely. But I do not want to make a statement now. We will say something in the interim report and in the preliminary statement. 

Recently, seven channels were removed from a satellite network. The basic right to get information and the basic right to inform are being restricted.

When I say that the media situation is difficult, this means that the environment may not be ideal under the point of view of OSCE commitments and other international commitments regarding the media situation during elections. I am not here to talk about the media in general, as we are election observers. But of course the general atmosphere in the media sector cannot be separated from the media situation during elections. Every citizen and every voter has the right to access information that is important to them in order to decide how they want to vote. We are observing this very carefully, as the media situation is one of the most fundamental parts of an election.

‘I hope Turkey will keep its tradition of orderly polls’

Do you have anything else to add?

Turkey has traditionally had orderly elections and this is one of the reasons why we have only a limited election observation mission without our own short-term observers. A full observation mission would have hundreds of observers all over the country. I hope this Turkish tradition of orderly elections will be preserved.

I have a high opinion of civil society organizations that conduct observations in Turkey, although unfortunately the legislation does not officially provide for election observers. 

I wish the Turkish nation an orderly and good election, while at the same time expressing my gratitude for the friendly reception we have been accorded throughout.