Turkey after the Local Elections

April 1, 2014
July 16, 2016

On Sunday Turkey went to the polls in local municipal elections, which both the government and the opposition billed as a referendum on the recent tenure of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party(AKP). With recent bans on twitter, the bloody aftermath of the Gezi Park protests last summer, and the government's feud with the supporters of Fetalluh Gulen in the Judiciary, tensions are running high. As a consequence there were always going to be widespread accusations of fraud and little confidence in the results, especially if those results showed, as these ones did, a generally triumphant picture for Erdogan, albeit one not without hope for the opposition as a whole. What they make of those slivers of hope will however depend on whether they take the correct lessons from these elections.

How Legitimate Were the Results?

Whether they will learn anything from Sunday is currently far from clear. At the present time the opposition is occupied with accusations of fraud, especially in the closely fought provinces of Antalya, where the AKP defeated an incumbent Republican People's Party(CHP) government, and in Ankara, where the AKP incumbent appears to have held on by less than a percentage point in official results after having himself conceded defeat early on election night.

Evaluating accusations of fraud is always perilous for an outside observer. It is far too easy to appear to be making libelous accusations without evidence because one's favored outcome failed to come to fruition. That many Western observers do throw around such accusations freely, especially in regards to Latin America, adds credence to these concerns. The fact that some in America have become so obsessed with their own fights over voter id and early voting that they have taken to making absurd comparisons to nation's where genuine fraud is rampant has only further served to undermine their credibility.

In the case of Turkey, some things are incontestable. The AKP openly flouted  laws restricting campaigning in the 24 hours before an election, intimidated the media into under-covering opposition candidates, and made an uncompromisingly triumphant and downright threatening victory speech early in the evening.

Beyond there things become murky, and by extension, circumstantial. I am not foreign to accusations of fraud; I made quite a few against the Iranian handling of the 2009 elections. But in that case it was not just the results that raised questions; the process from the start had been highly questionable. No precinct or provincial results were released in 2009, despite the fact that the former had been reported in real-time online in 2005, and the latter were required by law. The results themselves defied precedent.

There were clear problems problems with the Turkish process. For one thing, the power went out mysteriously, or perhaps not so mysteriously on election day.

ISTANBUL - Power cuts in some districts of the Turkish capital of Ankara during vote counting in Sunday's local elections were caused by sabotage, the initial findings showed, according to reports on Thursday. (UPDATED)

An initial investigation conducted by police and officials from the Turkish Electricity Distribution Company, or TEDAS, has revealed that the supply from substations in those districts had been physically tampered with, ANKA News Agency reported.

Police have launched a search to find those responsible, it added.

Opposition parties claimed earlier that during the power outages some ballot boxes and ballots were stolen and filed an official complaint calling for a probe into the issue.

A suspect had been caught attempting to pack counted votes into uncounted ballot boxes at a polling station in the Dikmen district of Ankara during the power cut on election night.

Ankara's incumbent mayor, Melih Gokcek, of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was elected for the fourth time after a tight race against rivals from the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP.


Nor have the AKP's explanations inspired confidence Today the Energy Minister blamed a vote stealing cat for the outage.

A cat that entered a power distribution unit – and presumably was electrocuted – was the cause of controversial power blackouts during the vote-counting process after the March 30 local elections, Energy Minister Taner Yıldız has said.

“I’m not joking, my friends. A cat entered a power distribution unit. It was the cause of the blackout [in Ankara] and it’s not the first time that it has happened. It is wrong to link it with the elections. It’s wrong to cry ‘foul play,’” Yıldız said while answering journalists’ questions in Ankara.

“Those who hid behind trees and green spaces in the Gezi Park [protests] are now hiding behind electric poles. This is very wrong. Opposition parties won in the districts where they filed these complaints. They behave like students who didn’t study their lessons enough,” Yıldız said.

On the election night, Yıldız had said storms and heavy snow were the cause of the power outages in other cities. 

Furthermore, there are as of yet no official results. All existing results either come from political parties, local media sources, or municipal authorities.  The website for the national electoral authority crashed on election night, and was not restored by the end of the following day. Opposition ballots have been found in trash bags. Its no surprise then that the leading opposition candidate for Mayor of Ankara has called for a recount, or that protests have begun to break out.

On a more personal level, I have friends on the ground in Turkey who engaged in vote counting Sunday, and have recorded their experiences, complete with photographic evidence indicating that irregularities occurred within Istanbul at least. One them, who watched ballots in Kadikoy, an opposition stronghold reported the following reflections:

I am in complete shock. I've just come back from Hydarpaşa, where all the Kadıköy votes are being collated and I have never seen anything so evil in my life.It is 02:30 in the morning, it is freezing cold and there are literally hundreds of people, election volunteers, each with a sack in their hands. Each sack contains at least 300 votes and almost all of them are CHP. The buses never came to pick us up and even now there are buses streaming in with more people, more sacks, more votes.We are witnessing a weird form of electoral larceny. The victory is being touted as a fait accompli but possibly hundreds of thousands of votes got left behind. The victory speeches have been given but the volunteers are still there. My sack is now in the system but hundreds, if not thousands, are being tended to by brave volunteers being tortured in the cold.We have all been up since 04:30 yesterday morning. I am so proud of the work that so many are doing. I am about to post some photographic evidence of what I'm saying is happening.The next step will be this: we all have physical and electronic copies of our specific districts. We are going to check these against what is eventually posted. If there are discrepancies, I expect all of you to shout. Loudly.And if the election results match our records, then we have to do some hard thinking about what we're going to do next because then it would become clear that a majority in this country actively support corruption and tyranny.

Included were the following photos.

Turnout is also a bit fishy itself. In 2009, 7,173,310 votes were cast in Istanbul, with the AKP receiving 3,092,493 or 44.34%, and the CHP 2,566,588, or 36.78%. That turnout of a bit over 7 million was pegged at 81% of eligible voters. This year, the CHP candidate, Mustafa Sarigul, increased his total by more than 800,000 to 3,398,698, but this only brought him to just under 40%, because AKP incumbent Mayor Kadir Topbas increased his own total by nearly a million votes to 4,071,277. The new overall turnout of 8,856,652 was recorded as 88.6%. 

Now turnout could be expected to increase this year given the nationalized nature of the contests, but this turnout increase was paired with a nearly 20% increase in the number of eligible voters listed on the rolls between 2009 and 2011. If the 2014 results had been recorded in 2009, they would have represented a turnout of 105%!

It is possible that this is legitimate. Nonetheless, inflation of voter roles is a common sign of electoral manipulation, as anyone who has observed the Venezuelan ones grow by 20% every election can testify to.When combined with the failure of the National Electoral Council to release results by ballot box in an expeditious manner, it cannot help but to raise questions about the integrity and legitimacy of the process.

In these circumstances, it is hard to conclude that these elections were conducted up to international standards, and it seems likely that some degree of fraud took place. I will go further and say that had the AKP followed the letter of the law, and allowed a fair campaign, they likely would have lost Ankara,, and probably Antalya as well.

The Hard Truth

That however, is about as far as I am willing to go. If the AKP played dirty, and stole some of the close races, the overall picture is neither as implausible as that in Iran, nor as easily explained by the irregularities that appear to have taken place. Despite the failure of the official website, results were released to the media in real-time, and despite high opposition expectations, at a national level fell at about the middle point of the expected range of results, with the AKP managing between 43% and 44% at about the median of its performance in the last local polls in 2009, and the National Assembly elections of 2011. While I have doubts that the elections were fair, and even less confidence in the Ankara and Antalya results, I have almost no doubt that a plurality of Turks who went to the polls on Sunday cast their ballots for the AKP, and I strongly suspect the same was true in Istanbul, where the final margin, over 700,0000 votes out of 7 million cast, seems large enough to render redundant the tactics used to achieve it. Supporting this view is that while the CHP candidate in Ankara has called for a recount, their candidate in Istanbul has conceded the race, only requesting a recount for the purposes of verifying the process and discovering irregularities.

The results above paint a clear picture, with the variation mainly having to do with strategic voting in the FPTP based Mayoral contests as opposed to the PR-based assembly races. In both cases however the AKP is well within its range for the last decade; 42% in 2004, 47% in 2007, 39% in 2009, 49% in 2011. If anything it is at the lower point of that range.

At the same time, the CHP is at the higher point of that range, having received 18% in 2004, 20% in 2007, 23% in 2009, and 26% in 2011. The disappointment for the CHP therefore comes not so much in their performance itself, which at the higher end of historical norms, but rather in the fact in the most favorable environment possible, with the government engaged in extremely polarizing behavior, with strong candidate selection, the CHP failed to grow its coalition, and to the extent it grew its coalition in the Mayoral races, those strategic votes more or less vanished in the Assembly races.

Why did this happen? Part of the answer may well lie in forces beyond the CHP's control. At the end of the day it ran as what it was; Kemal Attaturk's party running on a defense of secular principles in what is ultimately a conservative religious country. Before Erdogan and the AKP, women who wore headscarves could not attend classes or go to work, policies that even the opposition now admits were misguided. Yet there is precious little faith in that conversion, given its origins in expediency rather than conviction.

There was another factor as well. The CHP ran as Kemal Attaturk's party on a secular platform in what were ultimately municipal rather than national poll. The campaign was dominated by talk of the role the vote would play as a referendum on the direction of national politics; the strong candidates the CHP ran were perceived as strong precisely because they were inoffensive and designed to appeal across party lines, with the CHP's candidate in Istanbul having served across three parties in a little over a decade. Absent was any talk of municipal issues, job creation plans, urban renewal, or any idea of what the CHP/MHP would actually do if they won, other than feud with the Federal Government, which is not an asset for an Istanbul Mayor.

It is true that the AKP too embraced the concept that these elections were a referendum on national politics rather than on municipal policy, plastering Erdogan's face everywhere and hiding its local candidates. But those candidates, at least in Ankara and Istanbul, were incumbents with largely successful municipal record of their own, as opposed to the record of incompetence in power that still sticks to CHP and MHP from their time in power. Their vulnerability, such that it existed, only was present because of the "drag" of Erdogan and the national party, though they undoubtedly benefited from the failure of the opposition candidates to contest their own records or present a vision of their own. Opposition candidates talked Twitter and Burkas while AKP incumbents talked potholes, high-speed rail, and development projects.

Erdogan too was less of a liability than he appeared. His recent behavior was a liability, despite what the results turned out to be, but it was a liability that had to be weighed against the fact that he also holds an economic record unchallenged since the time of Suleiman the Magnificent. The opposition did not suffer so much because the public disagreed with them on the "social issues" under which they chose to run as because they chose to run solely under those issues. Erdogan did not beat the opposition; he won a referendum held by default, because his opposition chose not to seriously contest him for control of the country.

There are lessons here for the opposition. This summer there will be a Presidential election, in which Erdogan will be expected to run, and next year there will be National Assembly elections. In both, the victory of the AKP is not assured. In the Presidential race a candidate will need 50% in either the initial or second round to win, while in the latter the result swill be determined by PR. The total results for the CHP and MHP on Sunday exceeded that for the AKP, which means if these results had been replicated in a National Assembly election the AKP would have been denied a majority. While MHP votes seemed to split 65-35 tactically in favor of the CHP, far from enough to deny Erdogan a second round victory if replicated, that still should not provide him with confidence. The issues the opposition ran on will be relevant for the Presidential race.

But the opposition needs a positive message to take advantage of such opportunities. And that is what they hitherto lack. 


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