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Is extensive election fraud possible in Turkey’s fiercest elections?

Point of View, 10.05.2023 Research Areas

Turkey will soon vote for a new parliament and president. With the electoral process lacking in fairness, there are fears of fraud. Aslı Aksoy and Salim Çevik explain why this is unlikely.

On May 14, Turkey is heading to the polls to vote in what are deemed to be the most important elections of 2023. Most of the polls indicate it will be a tight race and that the opposition has a chance to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after 20 years. Last week, Turkey’s Interior Minister described the elections as a “political coup plot” by the West to overthrow the government. Given that elections are not always fair in Turkey, such a statement raises concerns about the security of the elections. Yet, extensive electoral fraud seems highly unlikely.

According to the Freedom House’s electoral integrity index, Turkey scores only 33 out of 100. The media is under government control and heavily censured, and state resources are used exclusively to support the government’s election campaign. There is severe voter suppression in the rural areas under the pretext of security concerns. Finally, the government instrumentalises the judiciary to intimidate and suppress political opponents.

Given such authoritarian elements of the political regime in Turkey, there are serious concerns that the elections could be rigged. Despite some attempts by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), elections in Turkey are generally free, the process is transparent and vote rigging is difficult.

Possibility of election rigging on election day

Although citizen participation is very limited when it comes to political affairs, even at the local level, voter turnout never falls below 80 per cent, as elections are the main means for citizens to express their political views and hold elected officials to account.

Each citizen is allocated an electoral box, and the electoral rolls are announced by the Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) well in advance of elections. The YSK shares these electoral rolls with all competing political parties. For each ballot box there is an appointed electoral board, which is responsible for the safe conduction of the elections and the vote counting. The head of the board is a civil servant appointed by the government, and there are appointees from the top five political parties who are ranked according to their share of the vote in the previous elections. Other smaller parties may also have observers at the polling stations, but they have no official role.

Each citizen can only vote at their assigned polling station and must present an official ID before voting. The electoral board members check that the ID matches the name on the electoral roll to prevent double voting and also ensure that votes are cast in private. The vote count is made available to the public and citizens are usually present for this. After the votes have been counted, a report on the results is drawn up and signed by all members of the electoral board. Each political party representative on the board receives a copy, and a final copy is placed on the door of the polling station. Any citizen can take a photograph of this copy. It is the most important official document, and the remaining vote counting calculations are based on it.

These reports are collected at the district and provincial polling stations and combined into a single report, which is sent to the YSK for final tabulation and the declaration of the election results. Six-member electoral boards at the district and provincial levels undertake the process of combining the documents. The board consists of a judge, a second public official and four representatives of the top four political parties, determined according to the results of the last election. 

Overall, the system is very thorough and open to public scrutiny at all levels. It is a paper-based system that limits issues relating to cyber security. There are also severe penalties for attempts to influence election results. For example, the penalty for falsifying an electoral register is eight years in prison.

Questionable past elections and the opposition’s learning curve

The relative security of the electoral system in Turkey does not mean that the AKP has not tried to rig elections. There have been serious concerns over the integrity of certain elections. In the past, the opposition parties often failed to appoint members to the electoral board for every ballot box. Furthermore, since the 2014 elections, Anadolu Agency (AA), Turkey’ official news agency, has falsely announced landslide AKP victories very early on, leading disgruntled opposition observers to abandon the ballot boxes without retrieving the election reports. As mentioned, the crucial document for electoral security is the election report kept by each observer. The only way for opposition parties to control and prove any possible irregularities is to compare the results with the election reports. This also leads to an inability to shape the public discourse. Once the government declares itself the winner and the opposition fails to respond on election night, the opposition is faced with a fait accompli and their follow-up objections have little impact.

But past elections have also served as a learning curve for the opposition. This was apparent in the 2019 Istanbul municipal elections. The opposition appeared to have properly organised all ballot boxes and their observers did not leave early, despite AA’s declaration of an AKP victory. The rapid collection of election reports enabled the opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, to openly and legitimately confront the AA’s results throughout the night by regularly sharing his own data. The government was thus unable to shape the public discourse as it had in previous elections. As a result, despite an extremely narrow margin, the government was unable to manipulate the election results.

For the upcoming elections, the opposition states that they are prepared as a result of these past experiences and that a member is being assigned to observe each ballot box. Furthermore, civil society has mobilised and established successful election monitoring organisations, most famously Oy ve Ötesi (Vote and Beyond), which can reliably assess the integrity of the election results. As long as the opposition succeeds in appointing observers to the electoral boards – thereby collecting results quickly and efficiently, and then sharing the data with the public – it will be very difficult for the government to steal an election it has lost. But if the opposition fails in any respect, then there is a serious possibility of electoral fraud. It is therefore crucial that international election observers remain vigilant and request information from the opposition.