One-quarter of the ballot box tallies in last week’s mayoral elections – enough votes to reverse the narrow victory by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s candidate many times over – arrived at counting centers in the Turkish capital without the official stamp of the election board.
But when the officials of the defeated Republican People’s Party, known as the CHP, went before district election boards to complain about this and other irregularities, they were rebuffed in hearings that lasted just minutes, the party’s lawyer said.
The provincial election board took about that long to reject the party’s appeal Friday. On Wednesday, Turkey’s Supreme Election Board unanimously tossed out the Republican People’s Party’s demand for a new election after about three hours of deliberation.
Erdogan, Turkey’s leader for 11 years, has portrayed mayoral races here, in Istanbul, and throughout this country of 78 million as a plebiscite on his leadership, which has been challenged by a massive corruption scandal since mid-December. He and his party have taken their nationwide victory March 30 as a vote of confidence.
But the vote in Ankara and other cities raises a serious question: Was the party’s success the result of genuine affection or of manipulation, fraud and political pressures brought to bear on the day of the vote and in the 10 days since.
The Republican People’s Party charged that Wednesday’s decision was the result of “political influence” by Erdogan and his party. The supreme election council “could not have endured the earthquake that would have resulted from a ruling for a re-run,” said the party’s deputy chairman, Bulent Tezcan.
The unstamped ballot box tallies alone raise serious questions about the outcome. The summaries represented more than 713,000 votes – nearly a quarter of the 3.3 million votes cast, the CHP said. Incumbent Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek, a stalwart in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, defeated CHP candidate Mansur Yavas by about 31,000 votes.
But this was part of a concerted drive by the moderate Islamist AKP to prevent the secularist CHP from challenging its power. The Republican People’s Party dominated modern Turkey from its founding by Kemal Ataturk. But after Erdogan’s rise to prime minister in 2003, nationally it is but is a shadow of its former self. Still, in Ankara, which Ataturk made his capital, the CHP has long had a reservoir of support, and this year thought it had an especially good chance to win.
Tally sheets that lacked the official stamp were a major irregularity. Other means were more subtle. An example was the redistricting decided by the AKP-ruled Parliament in a late-night vote in 2012, which moved conservative rural municipalities into CHP-leaning districts in the city of Ankara for the mayoral election. The CHP also charged there had been at least 53,000 duplicate registrations; that out of 124,000 votes that were voided, 100,000 had no reason stated; and some 450 tally forms had their contents incorrectly entered in the official database. The total the CHP says it lost is at least 120,000 votes, possibly double that.
As the counting went into the night of March 30-31, top government officials are reported to have descended on the counting center in one of the most crucial districts, Yenimahalle, and staying in one instance for hours.
McClatchy asked Mayor Gokcek to address the allegations either directly or through a deputy, but he did not comment. On Wednesday, he publicly mocked Yavas’ stated intention to appeal to the Turkish Constitutional Court. “He should go to the American ambassador and say, ‘Mr. Ambassador, we have suffered an injustice and the result of this election should be thrown out.’ ”
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of what appears to be a massive campaign, with the greatest long-term impact, was the seeming lack of due process at several levels by the institution responsible for oversight: the local, provincial and supreme election boards, all of which gave very short shrift to the CHP’s complaints.
The question raised by the seemingly skewed oversight is whether the upheaval in Turkey’s judiciary that Erdogan embarked on after the scandal broke – the reassignment or sacking of prosecutors and the threat to remove judges who are associated with moderate U.S.-based Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen – has intimidated the election boards, whose voting members are all judges.
“The government has not yet replaced the judges on the Council of State (the highest administrative court) nor the Supreme Council of Judges (which assigns judges to courts), but there is a sword of Damocles hanging over them,” said Muyesser Yildiz, a veteran Ankara journalist who works for Odatv, a Web-based independent Turkish news service. “Who could have the courage now to do anything against the government?”
Zeki Alcin, the CHP’s Ankara provincial chairman, brought the party’s complaints before two district committees, each consisting of three judges, and asked for a recount. In one instance, he recalled, “I presented the petition in the afternoon for them to hear in the evening, but before I could even leave the premises, it was rejected.” He said this was the pattern in all 25 districts of Ankara. “Every single one was rejected, and the meetings of the election board were over and done with in five or 10 minutes,” he said.
Attorney Cemal Yildiz was present at the CHP’s appeal for a recount to the provincial election board, which included 15 boxes of files. Chief Judge Ramazan Kaya read out the petition and discussed it with his two colleagues, Yildiz Kubra Yavuz and Ahmet Zeki Durmus. The hearing was closed to the public. “They discussed it for maybe 10 to 15 minutes and then came to the conclusion that the objections were not concrete, and there was no need to examine the case,” Yildiz said.
Yildiz said he appealed to the judges to examine the boxes, which filled the table in the small conference room. “As far as I can recall, the boxes were not opened during the session,” he said.
On every occasion he went before the provincial board, the panel of three judges rejected the complaint in similar words, saying “no concrete evidence or grounds were cited.” It was “like clockwork” he said. “They’d read the petition, which outlined what was supposed to have happened, and they’d say it was not concrete.”
McClatchy telephoned the board to ask for a confirmation by Judge Kaya that the deliberations, even on the major appeal, were as short as 15 minutes. An election administrator responded that it was “complete lies, complete lies, complete lies.” But then the administrator went on to say that some hearings finish in three or four minutes because there is no evidence or documents. Some hearings could last three or four hours, the official said.
Asked for his name, the official said: “Please don’t be sneaky. Don’t make us do a police state” (on you). Then he added: “We never make mistakes. None of our rulings have ever been rejected by the supreme election board.”
Of all the incidents on election night, perhaps the most disturbing was the visit of two national government officials to the center used to compile the ballot box tally forms for the district of Yenimahalle. Ali Bucan, the CHP district chairman, said Emrullah Isler, the deputy prime minister, arrived at the Nizim Hikmet Culture Center at about 10 p.m. and stayed for at least two hours.
“I’ve never seen anyone from the cabinet level come and watch election officials in the past,” he told McClatchy. Although Bucah was not privy to the discussions inside the hall, he said he was sure the presence of the minister “had an effect on the public officials working there.”
Then, from 4 to 6 a.m., Interior Minister Efkan Ala arrived with an official motorcade, and entered the building, Alcin told McClatchy. “He went in. He had the doors sealed. He stayed two hours,” Alcin said. “He was having a personal conversation with the chairman of the ballot box chairman.” He acknowledged “we don’t know what happened inside,” and thus far, no one has come forward to say exactly what transpired.
Twice during the night, from 10 p.m. until midnight and from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., the Yenimahalle committee suspended the posting of results, blaming computer outages. On both occasions, Yavas was gaining on Gokcek. Then, after the outages, there was a sudden change in the trends, said Bucan.
When Gokcen announced victory Monday morning, among those flanking him to congratulate him on five more years in office were Deputy Prime Minister Isler and Justice Minister Beker Bozdag.