ANKARA– Opposition supporters are buoyed by the forecasts for this Sunday’s local elections, which say the opposition alliance will triumph in Izmir and Ankara and possibly take control of Istanbul, the biggest prize of all.
The independent pollster AREA predicts that in Ankara the candidate for mayor of the opposition CHP-Iyi parties will poll 44.3 percent to the candidate of the ruling AKP-MHP alliance’s 39.3, and in Izmir the opposition will score 53.9 percent to the AKP-MHP’s 32.8 percent. In Istanbul, AREA says the opposition candidate will receive 44 percent to the AKP-MHP’s 42 percent, but this result is within the surveys’ 2 percent margin of error. (The polls were conducted on March 9-19 among 2,060 people in Ankara, 2,045 people in Izmir and 3,320 people in Istanbul.)
A second independent pollster, Ozer Sencar of Metropoll, declined to give figures, but told Sigma the opposition would definitely win Ankara and Izmir. Istanbul was too close to call.
If the predictions come true, the CHP-Iyi alliance will deal the most devastating blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June 2015 elections. That shock defeat caused Erdogan to cancel his election-night speech from the balcony of AKP headquarters and all public appearances until the following Thursday afternoon.
There is one caveat to these forecasts: the opposition cannot win unless votes are counted as cast. None of the opposition parties have confidence in the impartiality of the Supreme Electoral Council.
“The SEC should be fair and independent, but in recent years it has been acting like a branch of the government,” the Iyi Party’s head of election security, Hasan Seymen, said in an interview.
Reading a book on a bench in Ankara’s Swan Park, opposition supporter Dilek Guven said: “I don’t trust the elections because the government will do everything not to lose.”
The experience of local elections in Ankara in March 2014 has not been forgotten. On that night, results broadcast by TV channels showed the CHP’s candidate, Mansur Yavas, running neck and neck with the AKP’s Melih Gokcek. Many Ankaralilar went to bed confident Yavas would win because the results from the large district of Cankaya, a CHP stronghold, had not yet arrived. They woke up in the morning to find that Gokcek had won. There had been a blackout _ allegedly caused by a cat creeping into a transformer station _ and the counting of votes had become creative.
This week the HDP released a “General Report on the Pre-election Period”. Not only did it protest the lack of TV coverage accorded to its candidates, but it complained of the thousands of soldiers added to the voters’ roll in certain southeast constituencies on grounds of making the area secure. The real reason for these new voters, the HDP argued, was to “influence the distribution of votes”.
The report said no fewer than 691 polling stations had been relocated for “security” reasons. The HDP suspects the real intention was to oblige voters to walk a considerable distance to reach a polling station. It gave the example of polling station No. 1238 in Agri province which had been relocated because of “terrorist or criminal activities” that occurred in 1994.
But the opposition parties are not giving up. The head of election security in CHP, Onursal Adiguzel, says the party will deploy 14,345 party activists to monitor Ankara’s 12,158 ballot boxes. And they will be supported by 25,000 volunteers.
When ballots are counted, the CHP representatives have to send the results on a special cell-phone App to party headquarters, Adiguzel said. They also have to collect signed tally sheets, tutanaklar, and deliver them to the party’s district offices, where the results will be computerised.
Adiguzel showed Sigma how the party’s compilation of results could be compared to those issued by the SEC. Whenever there is a discrepancy, the CHP computer screen turns red. Objections must be filed within 48 hours of polls closing.
“The most important thing is that we collect the original tutanaklar. If we have all the tutanaklar from the polling stations, we will have time to file objections,” he said in an interview in the CHP headquarters.
Adiguzel admitted that in 2014 the party had been let down by its own monitors. In many cases, CHP monitors went home after the ballots had been counted, not waiting to check the filling-in of the tutanaklar. Many tutanaklar were signed by only one election officer, when they should have been signed by five officers, including party representatives.
“We are telling all of our monitors not to leave the polling stations until the tutanaklar have been filled in, stamped, and they have got originals,” Adiguzel said.
Iyi party is putting its emphasis on training monitors and supporting them with lawyers _ one lawyer for every three polling stations. It has published a booklet on a monitor’s duties and legal rights. And it has run a test election with monitors filing invented results to check that Iyi’s central computer is not overloaded _ a common problem in last year’s elections.
Seymen told this correspondent he is very much aware of the failings of the opposition in previous elections. “If you leave the door open, fraud will come in,” he said.
This points to the opposition’s biggest enemy _ the one within.
The civil society Oy ve Otesi (Vote and Beyond) did sterling work in the elections of June and November 2015, deploying thousands of volunteer observers at polling stations to check that votes were counted as cast. The credibility of that year’s polls is in no small measure due to Oy ve Otesi’s efforts.
But for Sunday’s election in Ankara, Oy ve Otesi seems to be receiving only a third of the volunteers it has got in the past, the Ankara co-ordinator of Oy ve Otesi, Basak Yavcan, told Sigma.
A professor of politics at TOBB University, Yavcan put this down to election fatigue _ six elections and a referendum in the past five years; voter apathy _ people thinking their vote won’t make any difference; intimidation of observers at the polling stations; and the discouragement that comes from the AKP’s negative campaigning against the opposition.
Asked if Sunday’s polls would be as clean as those in 2015, Yavcan replied: “I don’t know, but we’ll do our best.”
The ultimate gesture of the disenchanted opposition voter is to stay at home. The director of German Marshall Fund think-tank in Ankara, Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, says he gets emotional when he hears such talk.
“Our elections are unfair. They are not entirely free,” Unluhisarcikli said, “but they are real and they are competitive, and the opposition does have a chance of winning.”
“If the elections were fake, why is Erdogan so nervous?” Unluhisarcikli asked. His point is the president would not have been addressing two-to-three rallies a day for the past five weeks if he could rely on fraud.
On the bench in Swan Park, Guven said that despite her misgivings she will “certainly” vote on Sunday. “We have to win, and I’m trying to persuade others who say they won’t vote _ because it’s our only chance.”