The AKP’s growing neoliberal authoritarianism can be viewed most succinctly within the period between 2015’s two elections. Suruç’s re-opening of Kurdish guerrillas’ conflict with the state was used by the AKP as an opportunity to punish Kurdish citizens for their subversion of voting norms.
Examining the areas attacked by government forces during this period, it becomes apparent that all of them had gained an HDP majority during the June election. Diyarbakır. Silvan. Şırnak. Siirt. Silopi. Cizre. Lice. Hakkari. All HDP majority towns and districts. All under siege at some point in the past few months.
By the June election, this cloud of oppression drained Turkish society of its colour. Pundits point to events such as the siege of Cizre, where the population was forced to store corpses in grocery freezers for days due to a curfew, and the Ankara bombings, as examples.
We entered our first school on Election Day. The day before, we’d sat in a meeting room and talked about what we should be prepared to look out for. Even though all the major political parties have observers working in election centres (with the HDP being the only party recruiting international politicians, activists and journalists to aid the process), the mobilisation of one civil society organisation in particular has put more emphasis on the corruption in the Turkish electoral system.
43 of Turkey’s 85 electoral districts, Oy ve Ötesi (Vote and Beyond) enlisted tens of thousands of volunteers to observe the elections. While the HDP presented our roles as independent electoral observers impartial to the party, it is essential for the future of Turkish democracy that civil society organisations, such as Oy ve Ötesi, and the advocacy work of Turkish bar association members, continues.
A Turkish election centre runs out a school, with each classroom consisting of a ballot box, an electoral board assigned to that box and a registered list of voters for that classroom. This election board consists of anywhere between four and twenty members (normally around seven), the majority of whom are appointed by the government – hence, as a system of organising around AKP corruption, the supervisors of each ballot box are not the most useful, despite the fact that the HDP managed to get at least one party member on all such boards.
Such civil servants who are appointed to electoral boards by the government, as well as other political party members present in the electoral centre, are not permitted to present themselves in their capacity as party members. However, international observers in Küçükçekmece and Bayrampaşa witnessed AKP members breaking this rule by displaying AKP-branded pens in their pockets or wearing party colours.
Whereas complaints about visually partisan behaviour against the AKP were met with hostility by electoral board members and the police, in Bayrampaşa, AKP members, wearing AKP colours, felt comfortable to criticise a HDP official for her supposedly “Kurdish coloured” scarf (flower-patterned scarves are popular with Kurdish women, especially illustrated in the traditional Kurdish colours of green, red and yellow). Bear in mind that the Kurdish national colours are not the same as those of the HDP.
One day previously, I had expected to observe something – some smidgen of wrongdoing as evidence of the wider corruption and moral bankruptcy of AKP rule. However, what other international observers and I witnessed on November 1 was more symptomatic of AKP power dynamics in Turkey than observing a blatant instance of corruption, such as the purposeful miscounting of votes, would have been.
The atmosphere on Election Day was one of overwhelming helplessness in the face of AKP dominance. The votes were counted in each classroom. HDP members received the official copy of the vote count, as did the members of other political parties. These vote counts were input into each party’s online system, and then the votes were taken to the regional election centre where we sat waiting for the results. One by one, the votes of every classroom were input into the national system.
The count was not incorrect. While I did witness some strange incidents, such as one family in Beykoz who had been listed on the election register (and been allowed to vote) three times, such instances – like slight vote miscounts in other districts of Istanbul – were largely caught out and corrected through co-operation between HDP, Oy ve Ötesi and CHP observers.
The defeated atmosphere amongst HDP activists and party members on the day, despite their smiles and optimistic repetition of catchphrases, is symptomatic of the attitudes of many Turks and Kurds after months of violence. The resigned approach to the AKP members and supporters who flooded the election centres we visited was compounded by the blatant demonisation and intimidation of HDP members and supporters.
In the first electoral centre we visited, upon seeing that a group of HDP members were wandering around with yabancılar (foreigners) speaking English, we were followed by an AKP member who attempted to listen in on our conversations, as if there would be evidence that we were supporters of terrorism.
Members of the European Armenian Federation visited the district of Esenyurt, where a policeman proceeded to interrogate a member of the delegation and his interpreter. The policeman photographed their IDs, telling the delegation that they had no right to be at the electoral centre, and then proceeded to shout down the phone that “people from Armenia are here to meddle with the elections.” The group was faced with similar instances of racism in another election centre in Esenyurt, ending in them being intimated into leaving by twenty to twenty-five policemen.
AKP members and supporters, including police forces, systematically abused the gray zone in Turkish law regarding international electoral observers to bully and remove HDP delegations (including Turkish citizens) from electoral centres. HDP members were helpless within this environment, pleading with observers and party members by saying that it would be best not to “provoke” police or AKP members by repeatedly trying to gain access to electoral centres or classrooms.
From a small group of international observers from countries ranging from Armenia to Greece to Serbia to France, I can quote an exceptional number of instances of bullying or intimidation such as these. In an electoral center in Bağcılar, an AKP observer called a party lawyer to separate HDP observers from the ballot boxes, and questioned their presence. In Sarıyer, members of the French Parti de Gauche were similarly harassed. The list goes on.
Photograph courtesy of Rasande Tyskar. Published under a Creative Commons License.