Following months of speculation about possible early elections, on April 16, 2018, the anniversary of the controversial 2017 referendum, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), called for early elections to be held on August 26, the national holiday. On April 18, the State of Emergency was extended for the seventh time. A few hours later, Bahceli and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met and announced that snap elections would be held on June 24.
Following a meeting with Hulusi Akar, Chief of Staff in Turkish Military, representing Erdogan, former President Abdullah Gul announced that he would not run in the election. On April 30, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced a supplemental 24 billion lira budget that will include dismissing taxes, erasing debts, allowing dismissed students to return to university, and giving extra payments to retirees for the upcoming Eid Celebrations. Early elections aimed to disqualify Meral Aksener, the Leader of the Good Party (İyi Parti In Turkish); however, after secular CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi in Turkish) successfully transferred 15 Members of his party to the Good Party, Aksener legally found the opportunity to join the elections.
One of the main reasons for early elections is to ensure the upcoming economic depression. “Despite posting an impressive 7.4% growth rate last year, thanks largely to a credit boom and a series of stimulus measures, Turkey’s economy has begun to run out of steam,” The Economist reported on April 21. In 2018, two people are reportedly set themselves on fire for economic reasons, one in front of the municipal building after asking for a job and the other in front of the National Assembly in Ankara.
There are many concerns that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would also commit electoral fraud. On April 20, the Head of the Ankara Bar Association, Hakan Canduran, told Deutsche Welle that 550 million ballots were printed, although there are only 57 million voters. Another claim is that deceased people who have the same name as their descendants are shown as alive in the official records, and will have extra ballots registered in their names. Turkey recently opened an online family tree archive; many people have reported that their ancestors are recorded as alive in this archive. Nevertheless, the Head of Turkey’s Election Commission decided that to “discuss the election security before the elections is inappropriate.”
Following the April 18 announcement of the decision to hold early elections, on April 24 the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) recommended that Turkey should postpone the elections. PACE argued that ‘the legitimacy of the elections was at stake’ for many reasons. First, the election laws were changed only a month prior to the announcement. “Changing the election rules three months before Election Day is contrary to the recommendations of the Venice Commission” They noted that political parties would not have time to adapt to the new legislation and run campaigns. Second, the ten percent electoral threshold—the highest in Europe—was maintained, thereby putting pluralism in the Parliament at risk. Third, the Committee reiterated that holding genuinely democratic elections is impossible under the state of emergency and on-going security operations in south-east Turkey.
The ongoing state of emergency has “led to disproportional measures and unacceptable restrictions on fundamental freedoms – in particular freedom of expression, the media, and assembly.” The committee saw no progress in respecting human rights and stated that a number of people remain imprisoned: “A significant number of parliamentarians from the opposition (10), journalists (about 150) and human rights defenders remain in detention, while many other face legal cases on terror-related charges.” The committee observed that a number of NGOs and numerous media outlets have been closed since July 2016, while pro-government individuals have bought other media. Most recently, a pro-government conglomerate purchased one of the biggest media companies, Dogan Media, which publishes Hurriyet daily. The Committee also noted that online broadcasting is controlled via new laws. In such an environment, they found that there was not much space for democratic discussions for the elections, “which requires access to full and accurate information so as to ensure the voters’ ability to make informed choices between candidates.”
Many international commentators believe that the early election is the last phase of electoral dictatorship and that Erdogan would win as he owns the media, has suppressed the opposition, and uses police force, legal maneuvers, religion, and fear politics.
Erdogan also said that early elections would complete the process that was begun with the referendum. This goal is believed to be the new regime where he would be the head of state as a ‘Chief’ (in Turkish, Reis).
The New Election Law
After a fistfight in the parliament, a new election law passed in March 2018. The new law enables the merger of local election districts, assignment of police forces to polling stations if any voter calls for police surveillance, and allowing unstamped ballots to be regarded as valid. According to the new law, the High Electoral Board can move polling stations in districts where the majority is in opposition and impede monitoring of the ballot boxes. According to PACE, new election amendments ‘include the possibility to form pre-election alliances which was not possible until now.’
The opposition shared its concern that unstamped ballots could lead to electoral fraud and on the possibility that security forces could be used to intimidate voters, especially the Kurds in south-east Turkey. On April 20, the bill on early elections was passed at the Parliament.
The newly-adopted election law will allow security forces to will more easily be able to enter voting stations. Some journalists in Ankara have reported on an AKP plan to commit electoral fraud. They stated that in AKP-majority voting districts and in the villages, the security forces will replace 40,000 ballot boxes with ballot boxes containing pre-stamped AKP ballots. The new law also allows individuals who are not appointed by any political party to count and record the votes in the voting stations. The AKP will decide on the new districts to have voting stations and will appoint whomever they want as election monitors. Allegedly, the plan is to leave the villages without a signed record and to sign the official documents in the city centers. The new tables will be attached to the ballot boxes after they have been replaced during the transportation with the ones containing the ‘prepared’ ballots.
On April 25, parliament passed an adjustment to the electoral bill that inter alia makes it easier for Turkish citizens abroad to vote. The new legislation enables Turkish citizens outside of the country to vote on any day predetermined by the High Electoral Board, rather than on the basis of an appointment. After all, this will not be the first election where concerns of the EU or opposition parties in Turkey have been dismissed.
What happened in 2017 Referendum?
It has been alleged that during the April 2017 constitutional referendum, approximately two million votes were falsified. Now it is argued that for the upcoming elections, five million votes will be replaced with pre-stamped ballots.
Of the two million votes allegedly falsified during the referendum, an estimated 1.5 million of them were unstamped ballots. The Supreme Electoral Council of Turkey decided to accept these votes as valid. This illegal decision helped the referendum on the presidential system and the new constitutional amendments to pass with only 51 percent of the votes, a “narrow victory.”
Erdogan and Yildirim Threaten Violence if They Lose the Elections
On April 27, 2018, after learning that he may lose the upcoming elections in Istanbul, Erdogan recalled what happened in 2015 and said: “There was a minor indecisiveness in the ‘June 7’ elections and we saw what happened afterwards.”He was referring to the fact that after the AKP lost the 7 June, 2015, elections, Erdogan did not grant the right of forming the government to the winning parties. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP, refused to take part in a joint government and called for early elections in 2015, thereby helping Erdogan to buy time. Between June 7 and the November 1 early elections, terror erupted in Ankara and eastern Anatolia. Military operations were held in eastern Anatolia, shifting the language from peace in eastern Anatolia to terrorism and the Kurdish question, and prompting headlines about martyrs, imposing the idea that the nation needs a savior against the enemy and the threat to come.
Terrorism and suicide bomb attacks increased in the country in 2015, especially after the AKP lost its majority to form a government following the June 7 elections.
Some experts believe Erdogan can also trigger a civil war if he loses the upcoming elections. The AKP refuses to investigate tens of thousands of missing guns. According to CHP deputy Mehmet Tüm, the number of missing guns increased 720% in the last three years, from 14,000 in 2014 to more than 106,000 in 2017. Nevertheless, AKP deputies in the Parliament rejected Tüm’s appeal to investigate the missing guns. Besides, in 2017 it was reported that on the night of the 2016 coup, the Ankara Police Office distributed special guns belonging to deceased police officers to the public without any registration or record.
Call for Action: The West Must Not Abandon Turkey
The upcoming election may be the last chance to bring Turkey closer to Europe. With Turkey’s strategic role between Europe and the Middle East, NATO and Russia, moderate and radical Islam, the upcoming election is more than a domestic issue. Besides being NATO’s second biggest armed power, “Turkey matters not just for its size, but also as a bellwether of the political forces shaping the world,” according to The Economist. It concluded that Turkey has been “sliding into dictatorship… The West must not abandon Turkey.”
With the mid-May 2018 EU delegation visit to discuss the issue of refugees as well as visa-free deal in Turkey, immigrants will once again become a tool of domestic politics both in Turkey and in the EU. However, in taking action on immigration politics based on their domestic political concerns, European Member States are supporting a transition of Turkey to a dictatorship that can end up like Syria in its own context, bringing militant Islamist activism to the borders of Europe.
The elections will be held right after the month of Ramadan, which will be turned into a political and religious rally for the AKP. Twitter propaganda portrays voting as a platform to pledge allegiance to “Caliph Erdogan.” Considering how Erdogan collaborates with underdeveloped Muslim majority countries and uses an educated language to address the educated Muslims in the West as if he is the leader of Muslims, he is creating a version of Islam that does not hesitate to use power and is prevalent not only in Muslim majority countries, but also in the West. To prevent a new wave of terrorist acts in the name of Erdogan and Islam, it is imperative that the international community develop a language that cannot be interpreted as Islamophobic by Erdogan. Thus, it is a must to recall what Islam stands for and how Erdogan’s actions are in violation of the teachings of Islam. Otherwise, within the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, Ottomanism, and Orientalism vs. Occidentalism, a new theology of Islam that welcomes violent reactions may emerge. If this epistemological change happens, then no refugee deal will suffice to solve the problem, as Erdogan has the power to mobilize Turks and other Muslims in Europe and elsewhere.
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