Close Watch: Monitoring Free and Fair Elections in Turkey
THE TURKISH LOCAL ELECTIONS IN MARCH were a typically fraught affair. Technology blackouts obscured neck-and-neck mayoral races, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate in Istanbul erected billboards thanking people for electing him even before the results were announced, and election day violence led to the death of four people, with dozens injured.
Yet, while President Erdoğan hailed the AKP’s overall majority as a victory, the party lost control of many major cities—a severe blow to its grip on power.
Speaking at a press conference following the election, Andrew Dawson from the Council of Europe said, “Observers were not fully convinced that Turkey currently has the free and fair electoral environment which is necessary for genuinely democratic elections in line with European values and principles.”
Though his statement was based on issues around freedom of expression and the rule of law rather than the electoral process itself, he did note the efforts of the people involved in the actual election procedures, saying, “The Ballot Box Committees performed their technical and procedural tasks competently.”
This is vastly different from five years ago, when tales of vote rigging were numerous, causing the Turkish public to lose faith in their democratic proceedings. This transformation is in part due to Oy ve Ötesi, “Vote and Beyond,” a Turkish NGO that was set up to improve voter turnout and transparency around individual candidates, and to conduct independent election monitoring.
Riding the wave of increased interest in politics among young Turks that followed the Gezi Park protests of 2013, the eight founders of Oy ve Ötesi were determined to halt the decline of democracy in Turkey. Their work clearly touched a nerve, because thousands of volunteers signed up. What started as an Istanbul-based initiative soon spread nationwide to form a grassroots movement dedicated to improving the country’s electoral credibility.
In 2017, Oy ve Ötesi launched an app that allows users to photograph and upload images of voting tallies. Within four days, it had been downloaded 165,000 times. Data gathered this way can be compared with that collected by political parties, allowing observers to crosscheck official results.
Mustafa Köksalan, board member and spokesperson for Oy ve Ötesi, explained what makes this app work. “Our education committee managed to turn a complicated legal framework into fun and interactive teaching material,” he said. “We use this to train observers and every volunteer has an equal amount of work, which makes implementing our strategy easy. Our technological infrastructure and call center organization supports volunteers who are out in the field on election day, meaning no one feels left alone.”
Can Usta, an Istanbul-based web-designer, is one of the 250,000 volunteers, who said that he has stepped in to correct counting mistakes in prior elections as well. “It’s mostly stopping other people, often the relatives of the voter, from going into the voting booth with the voter, making sure people follow all the rules,” he said. “The officials, who are supposed to be on duty, don’t pay much attention and often seem to be just in it for the money. That’s why Oy ve Ötesi is so important.”
Köksalan agrees that their success lies in people taking their civic duty seriously. “One of the reasons we have been so effective is because we are independent and unbiased. We focus on the election process, not the election results,” he said.
While the turmoil in March shows that elections still don’t run smoothly in Turkey, the establishment of Oy ve Ötesi means citizens are now able to take ownership of the process. In a country long plagued by fraudulent politics and civil rights abuses, this represents an important step in the direction of progress.
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue