The Turkish local government elections held on 31 March 2019 were momentous. The political parties had coalesced into two blocs – one pro and the other against President Erdoğan and his AKP party.
These elections were viewed by all as an opportunity to cast a judgement on the president’s rule – seen by many as increasingly authoritarian – and took place against the backdrop of the failed 2016 coup, significant economic problems, and the continuing civil war in neighbouring Syria. Turnout was 84 per cent.
The Turkish government invited the Council of Europe’s Congress of Regional and Local Authorities to be the sole international observers of these elections. The Council of Europe asked me to lead the international delegation of 24 councillors from 22 countries.
The monitoring mission in Turkey involved two separate visits to Ankara. Many courageous people came to talk to us knowing that what they said could lead to their detention or to them suffering intimidation.
We heard complaints that the government had deliberately moved security personnel into particular areas, and had them registered to vote there in a direct attempt to change the likely result. The results in the Kurdish areas suggested that while the opposition HDP was largely successful, the movement of security personnel may well have swung some results.
On election day, our monitoring mission divided into teams of two and went all over the country, visiting 140 polling stations in urban and rural areas. While it was disconcerting to see heavily armed gendarmes in and around the rural polling stations, the voting we saw was orderly and well organised.
I observed one of the counts. I saw every vote held up and the chairman announcing who the vote was for as he showed it to all witnessing the count. The votes were tallied both by the ballot box committee (mostly men) and those observing (mixed). Every member of the committee certified the result of the count.
These ‘minutes’ were then scanned, posted online and sent to the relevant district counting centres where the counts were aggregated, and the overall results declared. It is a very swift process.
Although I am not fully convinced that Turkey currently has a free and fair electoral environment, the fact that many parties have been successful is a positive sign of Turkey’s democratic resilience. The mayoralty of Ankara passed from the AKP to the opposition – and the initial result in Istanbul suggested that the same had happened there.
However, the Istanbul result has subsequently been overturned with the Supreme Election Board requiring the mayoral election to be re-run on 23 June, as this edition of first was going to press.
The objections made by the ruling party against the voters’ lists of certain Istanbul districts, on the ground of alleged irregularities, came after the legal deadline. This is contrary to our understanding of democratic fair play in elections and I will return as part of a high-profile mission to observe the re-run election in Istanbul.