Monday, November 2, 2015

The Turkish Election--Observations from the Voting Precincts

            After last night, I have to write something about this election. I am no political analyst, but it’s hard to know what to analyze anyway. The majority of the media is in the government’s hands now—including the channels that report election results--and most of the major foreign press agencies take their news right from them anyway. (I did learn that the lira rose a bit, with everyone praising “stability”. Money is amoral.)

            But let me say this. The official national election board, the YSK, said that the final election results would not be released for another two weeks. Their website, where we followed the results rather easily on June 7th, was shut down most of last night. Add to that the idea that the AK Party, within a few months, supposedly raised their percentage of the votes from 40 to 50—mainly through the leaking of votes to them from all the opposition parties. Never mind that most of the opposition parties are diametrically opposed to the AK Party. More importantly, they are all radically different from one another. So how could similar conditions cause the green, leftist, minority HDP party to give votes to the AKP and the borderline fascist nationalist, right wing religious MHP to do the same? And of course, reports of fraud and vote meddling pour in on Twitter and other social media sites.  Sour grapes? Maybe a little.

            I’d like to explain at least what I personally saw and experienced.

            Yesterday morning I showed up around 6:30 in the morning at a school near our house, the election precinct where my wife would be working.  I could not do anything official, of course, but I could at least provide moral support and run errands, fetching water and what not. Our ballot box was manned by a ballot committee made up of four women. There were two from the CHP (Republican People’s Party), one from the ruling AK party and one from the election monitoring organization Oy ve Ötesi (The Vote and Beyond). There was also a civil servant, himself from the AK Party and another guy that just showed up out of nowhere, neither election observer nor member of the ballot committee.  He took every opportunity to help count ballots, move envelopes, arrange the ballot box and in short, touch the official papers as much as possible. I am pretty sure that this is illegal, but no one heeded the objections. I didn’t catch him doing anything shady, however.

The little irregularities.

During the day, I personally heard at least two people take pictures of their ballots while in the ballot booth. This is a common tactic. You take a picture and send it to the AKP who then pays you for your vote. They were warned and the incidents were entered in the minutes, but there was little else to be done.  The votes stood. And this was DESPITE the fact that their cellphones had been confiscated, which means they had a second phone hidden away to do the job. I am pretty sure two more men did the same thing, though we didn’t hear the camera click. One of them came in with his arm around the other, shouting rather loudly, “You know who to vote for! You know what to do!” and then for good measure, walked him to the voting booth and whispered something in his ear. When he was warned by the committee that no attempt at persuasion was allowed and commanded to step away from the booth, he told them it was okay because, “I am a committee chairman here.” My impression, from the way they were acting, was that the two men had just met.

Another man brought in his Down’s Syndrome daughter. Technically, she gets to vote on her own, but the father insisted she needed his help and raised such a fuss, shouting and threatening the committee, which in turn set his daughter screaming too, that he bullied his way into the voting booth at her side. Two votes for him.

At about three o’clock, the hallways filled with groups of young men roaming randomly. I caught them in the bathroom smoking and writing tweets—Aktrolls? I wasn’t sure, but then three of them showed up in our ballot box around 15 minutes till the closing of the vote. “We are observers,” they said grinning, arms around each other. “We’re going to make sure everything goes like it should.” When the committee chairperson asked for their cards, they showed her IDs for the AKP. One of them wouldn’t show her anything, and they left. In the meantime four men from the AKP came in to monitor the vote count—this brought the total AKP representation to seven people to every other party’s one.

The little guy who had been there illegally touching things since the morning took it upon himself to open the ballot envelopes. He wanted “to help”. As the ballots were counted, another little man in a purple tie suddenly muscled his way into the room, shouting and gesticulating wildly at the committee chairperson.

“You will pay for this insult,” he said, slamming his fist down on the ballot boxes. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

The chairperson kept her cool. “I’m sorry sir, but what is your complaint?”

“You’re saying the AKP.”


“You are insulting our president and his party!”

“I’m sorry?”

“You will call it the Justice and Democracy Party! You will not use an acronym! Maybe you do that with your friends on the streets but not here! You’ll pay for that insult! Don’t you know who you are dealing with? I’ll make you pay!”

Please keep in mind that this is in a country where a 13 year old was recently sentences to prison for “insulting” the president. In any case, no one could understand what he was going on about. But I had read in the HDP’s election instructions that one tactic of the AKP was to start fights around ballot counting time, provoking representatives of the opposition into doing something that would get them thrown out. And indeed, he almost succeeded. The woman who represented the CHP almost charged him and had to be held back. He’d asked her if she and her mother, who was sitting in the room as well, would enjoy being called the “Party of the Idiots.” He came in twice and tried the same thing. Security was called but did not come. The lawyers were called and laughed at the man’s complaint, but no one could get him out. The AKP man sitting next to me finally winked at him and said, “We have this room taken care of brother, don’t worry.”

Around six o’clock when our ballot box was only half way counted, the groups of young men outside began shouting victory slogans for the AKP. They paraded the parking lot in their cars and honked horns flashing hand signs and chanting the President’s name. Soon after, the government controlled news agencies—which are the only agencies we have these days—began announcing results. Startling, incredible victories for the AKP! Almost immediately, several observers from the opposition parties left—though the votes had not been fully counted! Almost no monitors for the last of the process.

I helped my wife gather the minutes from the ballot boxes. At 9:30, they were still not all in. One extra vote popping up here, one disappearing there—a normal thing when you dealing with all this counting probably.

The ballots were all put in a sack to be taken to the central committee. Technically, each ballot box was accompanied by the committee chairman for that box and two other representatives from different parties. The last two ballot boxes were on their way out the door and we asked all the non AKP party members who was going to accompany the ballots. Oy ve Ötesi was gone. A woman with the CHP said that she was sure someone from her party was going, but that she couldn’t. When we asked around, we discovered that no one was going. They all thought someone else would do it. Everyone was moping over the terrible loss though the votes had not all been counted by a long shot—and so they were leaving the last of the ballots to a vanload of over 10 AKP women! This was another tactic the HDP’s election brochure warned about—early announcements of victory to demoralize you and cause you NOT to follow the vote count or the safe delivery of the ballots. And it worked. Not one CHP from our school rode with those ballots. We ended up riding along by default, promising the CHP woman to keep an eye on things.

The police drove. Remember all security forces are firmly in the hands of the president personally. Instead of going down the road next to the school which took you on a straight shot to the election center, they took a round about route that wound us past the president’s house and got us stuck in a crowd of hysterical young men waving AKP flags from their cars. Almost certainly on purpose—this circuitous route. I couldn’t help but marvel at the malleability of young men. All these boys cheering this wealthy autocrat—and why? What for? They are so easily militarized and fanaticized. What the fuck is wrong with my gender?

At election central, where the ballots are handed over to officials—we accompanied a group of five AKP women. When they turned in the bag full of votes, they formed a barrier with their bodies around the table that my wife tried to muscle her way through—but one of them literally blocked her with her shoulder. I don’t know if anything shady went on here, either, but the man they gave the ballot minutes to pointed out that none of them had been signed and then said something about one of the numbers being wrong. He pointed to the tally sheet and said, “You have to follow this!” and then wrote over one of the numbers on the minutes. The AKP ladies did not object.

And then we went to the HDP office and watched Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ deliver the party’s official stance on the results. Essentially, things would be investigated and an official report released, but it looked like they were accepting the results for now. Both did emphasize that this was a victory for the HDP.


Over 190 HDP offices and Kurdish business had been attacked by mobs, in some cases burned down. Dozens of party officials had been arrested in weekly “antiterror” operations. The media had been seized by the government and all its organs devoted to a smear campaign against the HDP (the latest slander, for example, being that American intelligence was behind the HDP’s campaign—what campaign?—an accusation which even awoke our embassy from its slumber and inspired a very angry retort deploring the ‘despicable lies’). Finally, two massacres, most likely with some official collusion, had killed over 100 of our people and terrified the whole nation. Campaigns and meetings were canceled out of concern for the safety of the attendees. And finally, the ongoing war in the Southeast. On election day, many Kurdish villages were unable to vote at all. Gendarmes blocked the roads and told them they couldn't leave because there was an "operation." In spite of all of this, the HDP crossed the 10% threshold and made it into parliament.

I have seen a few Westerners express a hope that this election will spell an end to the “polarization” of the last few months. I take issue with that word. Polarization implies two equally uncompromising sides. It implies that if they would just sit down at a table and try to understand one another’s position, they might realize how unreasonable they’re being and how compromise will save the day. I don’t think you can use this word when one side is so much more powerful than the other. When they use that power to deliberately radicalize their followers, because they know that makes them more powerful. When they allow the murder of their own citizens to achieve political aims.  When they hire the mobs and arm them and lead them to the kill. When those mobs are so willing to do the job.

Among ordinary citizens maybe it’s polarization, but those gangs of boys stick in my mind—wave after wave last night roaming the streets of Üsküdar.


jmchugh said...

I'll never again complain about the old ladies who who volunteer at U.S polling places and who invariably take forever to find my name and address, and who snap at me if I make the least misstep while voting. Feeling grateful today about voting tomorrow.

Unknown said...

I just found your blog here, Wonderful!! I am an American woman in California married to a Turk. I lived in Anadolu Hisar in 1982. You are very gifted in your prose and photography, I feel like I am there. I visit every few years. I am certainly going to look for ideas for things I have not done when I go next year. The Ayvalik post made me realize, been there 4 times need to get to Son Vapur for meze. Thank you again

Jeff Gibbs said...

Your welcome Vanessa--I still dream about Son Vapur!