As Turkey votes, democracy is under enormous pressure

1 November 2015

As Turkey votes, democracy is under enormous pressure

Today more than 55 million Turks will have the chance to vote in the country’s general election. Expected turnout is high, probably close to 90%. That’s good news, as these elections are of unusually great importance. They do not, however, guarantee that Turkish democracy will stay on its feet. Concerns in the entire country and beyond are greater than ever before, writes SP Senator Tiny Kox, who was one of a team of election observers from the Council of Europe, a task he also performed in the previous elections in June.

In the last few days the government has really been pulling out the stops to win the election and regain the majority in parliament which it lost in June. President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu have been calling their political opponents all the names under the sun. This is particularly true when it comes to the left pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party , the HDP, which they are making pay. The party is constantly portrayed as the accomplice of the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). After June’s elections, in which the HDP made the biggest gains of any party, breaking the domination of the governing Islamist-conservative AKP, the Turkish army carried out daily attacks on PKK camps in south-eastern Turkey and over the Iraqi border, despite the ceasefire declared by the PKK itself. The HDP is also under constant fire. In the entire country party offices are being attacked and set on fire. HDP activists go in fear of their lives. Who is behind this violence is unclear but what is certain is that the government is doing virtually nothing to protect what is in size the country’s fourth largest party and in essence the government’s biggest political opponent, as party vice-president Alp Altinors told me. As a result the party is no longer able to organise mass meetings and popular HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş has largely faded from the picture. On September 10th dozens of HDP activists were amongst those killed in a bomb attack on a peace demonstration in Ankara. The bomb was probably planted by ISIS terrorists but the state security service had done nothing to prevent it, the HDP says. And those were not the only HDP activists who have lost their lives during this election campaign.

Other opposition parties have suffered less from violent attacks but have certainly come under constant verbal fire from the governing AKP. As a result of the grip which the government has on a large slice of the Turkish media, the chances of opposition parties appearing on television to respond are extremely small. Yesterday almost all TV channels broadcast live a lengthy speech given in Ankara by Prime Minister Davutoglu, just as other appearances by president and PM have been in the days which preceded this. The biggest opposition party, the CHP, which has the support of some 25% of the voters, has to make do with a great deal less media attention. Protests from CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu have had no effect. Members of the media supervisory council told me yesterday that they were not able to bring about a fair division of media coverage.

Last week the government even went so far as to bring a number of critical media groups under state supervision. Their broadcasters and newspapers were taken over following police raids, and since then astonished viewers and readers have seen how these media have gone, from one day to the next, from being critical voices to being strikingly pro-government. This umpteenth infringement of media freedom has even led to international protest. Across the world, television stations and newspaper editors have expressed their concern over the elimination of Turkey’s free press.

The Council of Europe too has given voice to its concerns. Journalists in Turkey are starting to get desperate. Yesterday a journalists from the mass circulation, critical daily Hurriyet told me that ‘Everything is uncertain. I don’t know if I will be off to vote on Sunday or sitting behind bars. You ask yourself whether resistance still makes any sense now the independent judiciary has become a joke and any day you could be branded a terrorist.’ To my question as to how things sat when it came to mutual solidarity amongst journalists, the spokesperson from the journalists’ union told me ‘We are pretty well forced to be brave although we’re certainly no heroes. But if we don’t make our voices heard, there’s a chance that the government will make good on its threat to deal with the rest of the critical media and journalists after the elections.’

Tens of thousands of domestic observers will today attempt to ensure that the Turkish people can vote and that every vote will be counted honestly. These are for the most part young people who have volunteered their services as election observers. Political parties have also sent observers into the field. Everyone expresses their satisfaction at the presence of international observers at the elections and hopes that this too will contribute to countering electoral fraud.

The polling stations are open today from eight in the morning until five in the afternoon. The first exit polls are expected later in the evening. Tomorrow the international observers in Ankara will give their judgment of the elections at a press conference.

2-11-2015 Update from SP Senator and Council of Europe election observer Tiny Kox

After almost all the votes have been counted it’s clear that the AK Party has recorded a surprisingly large victory and regained a majority in parliament, with almost 50% of the votes behind it. AKP took 316 seats, while the Republican CHP remains the biggest opposition party with 134 seats. The right-wing nationalist MHP took 41 seats. The left-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP) retained 59 seats. Despite the governing party’s large victory, the AKP will not be strong enough alone to effect a change in the Constitution and replace the current parliamentary system with a presidential system, as President Erdogan wishes. For that, a 2/3 majority is required.

The HDP describes the election struggle as unfair and dishonest. Following a number of major bomb attacks, many of which resulted in fatalities, they were forced to close down their campaign while the ruling AK Party had virtually complete control of most media outlets. The HDP is proud that it has succeeded in exceeding the 10% threshold which parties must cross in order to gain any parliamentary representation, and that it has now become Turkey’s third biggest party.

Later today the international observers from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will give their first evaluation of the elections.

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