Monday, June 13, 2011

Robot Gulls Steal Turkish Election

I have mentioned this before, but Turkey, like many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, is a country that has turned conspiracy theories into a work of art. After a while you start to suspect even the seagulls of plotting against you. (I don’t know what the gulls are planning, but whatever it is, its big. The swarm my rooftop by the hundreds and squawk in that foul (!) sneaky language of theirs, all the while staring and staring and staring. I’ve seen The Birds. I know the score. Perhaps they work for the Israelis? Or Al Qaeda? Robot gulls? Has Osama Bin Laden’s reanimated corpse sent an army of robot gulls purchased from the CIA to kill me?)

Robot Gulls in training

It’s not all crazy though. An old special ops man, Ayhan Çarkın, confessed to the Radikal newspaper to executing several Kurds on behalf of the government back in the 90’s. This had only been unsubstantiated rumor before. Mainstreamers called the people asking for investigations crazy, paranoid, and provocateurs. Yet, unsubstatiated rumor is realer than one might like to believe in Turkey. The trouble is, anyone can start gossip, so you have to be really sharp to know which gossip is true and which is made up to hide the true ones. It’s like being friends with the popular girls in junior high, only this gang of Heathers kills.

The people behind the Turkish political system--'OMG he is such a skank!'


In any case, I saw with my own eyes today what should have been a story told by a conspiracy obsessed paranoiac, but was, in fact, reality.

Today is June 12th, the Sunday of Turkey’s fateful election. The results will determine who gets to write the next constitution—the one that will replace the dinosaur imposed by the military junta some thirty years ago. If the majority AK party can win two thirds of parliament they will be able to push through any changes they wish without asking anyone else—a grim prospect given the scope of human rights abuses in the last few years. Over sixty journalists are behind bars for criticizing Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan, which means that thanks to the AK folks, Turkey ranks near China for press freedom (that’s like saying you rank with Stalin for religious tolerance) with new arrests every day on some trumped up terror charge or another. They have sued thousands of writers for ‘slandering’ the government, are instituting a far reaching government monitoring of the Internet, have bugged phones, and started using the police in heavy handed ways against protesters—a man died recently out East after being tear gassed, for example. And now with the new constitution, they aim to change Turkey into a presidential democracy which would leave Tayyıp Erdoğan in power for the next ten years.

Not that they don’t have a good side. At least you can say you are Armenian or Kurdish these days without too much backlash.

Whenever I hear 'AK party, I always think of Bill the Cat's Ack


Delal supports a party called the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). It is mainly made up of Kurds, but also leftists like film director, writer, and talk show host Sırra Sürreya Önder—a Türkmen from Adıyaman. The candidate for Kadıköy, Sebahat Tüncel—a woman who has already served a term or two, owes us 5 lira for the börek we brought to her office one day last week. Delal says let it go, we were trying to be supportive, but I’m counting kuruş. Cough it up Sebahat!

Sırrı Süreyya representing his super cool movie Beynel Minel

Today we went to Üsküdar, the AKP nest on the Asian side, and served as election monitors at the precinct where Delal and her sister vote. Now the BDP could not directly take part in the election (you have to command ten percent of the election to do that—the military junta’s idea). Instead they joined as independent candidates—a coalition of individuals who planned, once in office, to form a coalition block. So we call them the block.

This all gets very complicated so let me leave the politics aside.

I was pretty excited to be a monitor (müşahit). I had my own badge from the coalition block and stationed myself like a Secret Service agent on the second floor of the school where the elections were held. I kept an eye out for any kind of hijinx and hooliganism—in the weeks before the election there were riots in the streets, Molotov cocktails, tear gas attacks. It seemed anything was possible. I did not have to wait long for action.

A small band of covered women from the AK Party (ACK!) had staked out each floor of the school—about five per flight of stairs. One of the them, an old shrew in a lead-colored headscarf with similarly colored eyes sat beside me and scanned the hallway like one of the robot gulls I mentioned earlier. She had a sour expression and an enormous honker (indicating, a friend in Boston once told me, that she has a big penis). As soon as a new voter appeared on the stairs, she turned on the smile, flew to her feet and asked, ‘Oh, do you need help finding your voting booth?’ She’d put an arm around their shoulders and start to lead them away, talking the whole time. ‘Do you understand how to vote? Would you like me to help you?’

This sort of thing is completely illegal in Turkey. As monitors, I and Robot Gull Woman can only watch and report anything we think is strange. We are not allowed to guide or direct anyone. I didn’t understand what the big deal was at first until Delal pointed out that in the past people have used this same approach to threaten, bribe, or intimidate voters. If you happen to be illiterate, they may even try to cast your vote for you.

There were about twenty five of these women at our school—wandering the halls in their covered lady trench coats and cornering people before they went into the room with the ballot boxes. We called the police on them, and they went away for a few minutes only to pop up later and do the exact same thing. This went on for hours. They were very aggressive with people, and hysterical when confronted, but they clearly knew they were doing something wrong because they would vanish until the coast was clear and cops had gone.

For the first time since coming to Turkey I began to understand the suspicion that people felt toward the covered women. At least the ones who came today were abusing their power as monitors and pressuring people with sheer numbers--during the vote counting process too. They finally left when Delal threatened to call one of the election lawyers on them (another shouting match ensued) and they regrouped in the parking lot outside. (Another gull-like behavior—you shoo them off but they just trot down the beach and bide their time).

We called the lawyer anyway. She said that there were so many incidents in our precinct that she was handling them in order of importance. She never did make it to us. If it was like this in our small little section of the city, God knows how it was in the rest of the country. (Next day flash forward—the newspaper mentioned today how bad it was in the rest of the country. In Ankara a fight broke out because opposition party members said they saw AKP people planting false ballots. In Adana, block supporters stormed a school they said was trying to steal votes. In other parts of the country, there were missing ballots, false signatures, and lots and lots of women doing what our covered gals were doing. A couple of these chicks in Denizli were caught trying to pay people to vote for the AKP. Imagine, that many irregularities! Other scandals made the news last night before polls had even closed. There were ballots found Saturday, a full day before the election, signed and sealed—more votes for the AKP. Someone was caught burning ballots with votes for Sırrı Süreyya over on the European side. In our own school, several of the election workers refused to give us official copies of the election results (something they are required to do by law so that we can corroborate vote counts and challenge discrepancies). One woman even tried to shut the door on us while they counted votes unmonitored. (You’re disturbing my concentration! she screeched.)

In Fikirtepe, another part of Kadıköy where our candidate and lendee Sebahat Tüncel cast her vote, the election officers refused to let the coalition’s monitors into the room. When they gathered outside (following the strategy of the Robot Gull Women but with different results) the police tried to disperse them by force (again illegally) and only them--there were several other people from the AKP outside with them who were not dispersed. After several meetings and threats by the election lawyer, and probably after it was way too late, the let the monitors in.

And just to add my own little 2 kuruş worth to the conspiracy pot. From the ballot box I was monitoring, there were 81 votes for the CHP and 120 for the AK guys—and this in a neighborhood known for its almost unquestioning support of the AK party. One wonders how the AK people were able to sweep into power (25% CHP, 50 % AKP) if the ratios even in their fortress of fortresses were not that high.

And my favorite--caught and documented by a reporter no less.  A young man walks into the offices of Mr. Sureyya and after some complimentary tea and chatting, bids them adieu but forgets to take his bag.  Inside are several Molotov cocktails.  Ten minutes later, the police arrive saying someone had tipped them off that a riot was being planned. 

Ugh.  Christ, okay.  I’ll never dismiss a conspiracy theory out of hand again.

All very dramatic. But I had the sense that I was actually doing an important job. International observer. Me! The vote counting itself was the most exciting part for me. One by one the ballot chief opened the envelopes, showed it to the room, and ticked off the votes. I sat in my chair with a very serious look on my face, but was grinning like a fiend on the inside. I had my piece of paper with me and ticked off the results. Whenever one for our candidate came up, Delal and I looked at each other and did a mental high five. There were about six of the covered ladies crowding in front of me, and just as many sitting next to Delal. They crowded the front and pushed others away which made it a little difficult to do proper monitoring. Even the election officials asked them to back off.

Despite all the hullabaloo, in the end, our party did rather well. According to the latest reports, we took 35 seats in Parliament, about ten more than we had before. We. Yeah, I said we. Now that I am getting married to someone local, local politics matter, and the independent candidates support of equality for women, equality for all minorities, and a responsible environmental policy resonates with my own position on such things.

We ended the night with fireworks on Kadıköy wharf. The supporters of the block were there in mass, waving flags and dancing the halay. Some AKP supporter smirked and said, if they get this worked up over 36 reps we could just give it to them—we’ve got plenty. But 36 is nearly double what it was before and it’s enough to play a role in shaping the new constitution. So stick it, dude.

Celebrations in Kadıköy


Anonymous said...

A very interesting read.

Elections are a circus no matter where in the world one is. It looks to be a fun election season next year for the US. Certain politicians are trying to make it difficult for first-timers to register to vote! And that's just the beginning.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating and exciting! I love the Bloom County reference. It's cool to think that they actually made a robotic gull.

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable but real!

Carolyn Abiad said...

Thanks for a great post! I love, love, love your perspective. Robot gull women - lol!