Election safety is too important to leave to the government

There are still many unanswered questions regarding the results of the 14 May elections in Turkey and the events on election night. Sociologist Harun Ercan explains what happened.

There is as much discussion about the election results of 14 May as there is about the events on election night. In this sense, although there are some questions in the air, no clear statements can yet be made about what lessons should be drawn from this situation for the second round of elections. Was it only about the infrastructural problems of the CHP system or should the irregularities of the government be sought in one place? And could this unresolved knot overshadow the second round?

In an interview with Harun Ercan, a PhD student in political sociology at the State University of New York, we talked about the election night debates.

The safety of the elections on 14 May and the upcoming second round on Sunday is an important topic of discussion. You have spoken about this point several times. From this point of view, to what extent was the safety of the election important and why should it be an important issue for the run-off?

At the beginning, we should point out a distinction. The area of Turkey and the area of Northern Kurdistan differ in terms of structural dynamics. This is not only the case in this election; it has been the case for decades. Let's start with the Turkey part of the issue: there are debates about the character of the regime in Turkey. This debate is also related to electoral justice and safety. Even liberal academic approaches define the system in Turkey as a "competitive authoritarian regime". In other words, yes, there is political competition, and it is partly allowed, but the parties are not equal in their competition. This situation is described by the following analogy. Let us imagine a football match: The ruling team enters with eleven players, the opposing team with six to seven players. From the beginning, there is an unequal and unfair process, and the referee of the game decides in favour of the government. You can also transfer this to the playing field in Turkey. In this context, I think there are factors that lead the voters of the National Alliance and the Alliance for Labour and Freedom to the same misunderstanding, especially in terms of electoral safety.

What are they?

After the unjustified rerun of the 2019 Istanbul mayoral election, voters had the following opinion about the CHP, the leading opposition party: "The opposition has solved the problem of ballot paper protection. There is no serious problem with this issue. And if we cast our vote with a clear conscience, despite all the inequalities and all the unfair procedures, there will be no serious difference between the votes that go into the ballot box and those that come out of the ballot box." People gained confidence. However, it seems that this is a partial experience only in Istanbul and at the local level. Throughout Turkey, the CHP has not built a complete system to ensure electoral safety within itself, nor has it been able to successfully organise itself in practice. We do not believe that the votes cast in the ballot boxes were actually reflected in the official results announced by the YSK [Supreme Election Board] and that the data we have is 100 per cent correct.

You mean there is still no satisfactory data?

We really don't know if the officials and police officers who have the right to vote in different places and not in a specific polling station acted fairly, especially during this period. In Antep, for example, thousands of Kurdish voters were registered as polling staff by the Vatan Party and could not cast their votes. The most important thing to remember about electoral irregularities is this: Most people think very sweepingly about a single method of irregularities. In my opinion, systematic irregularities in elections are never done in a single method, and in a particular way. They are carried out as part of a localised strategy. This is because if the majority of the population believes that the elections are not legitimate, it would be a terrible defeat for the ruling party. If the election results are not accepted, there is no way to convince the public that they are living in a more or less legitimate political regime, nor is there any way to convince foreign public opinion. The problem of inability to govern arises from the legitimacy deficit. Therefore, this work must be done in such a way as to create the impression that any systematic irregularities do not have a major impact on the election results, so that people accept the election results as legitimate. Of course, there is a special situation here that puts the opposition in an even more difficult position.

What is this special situation?

The fact that there is a run-off, i.e. the election has been left to the second round. In authoritarian regimes, the defeated opposition parties face the following dilemma: they cannot mobilise the masses to the polls by stressing that the elections cannot bring about any significant change. Above all, if the fact that the CHP cannot protect the ballot boxes becomes the general opinion of the voters, people will not vote in the second round, the turnout will be low, and Erdoğan will have a very high approval rating. On the other hand, if you do politics on the grounds that the votes were stolen, then the main opposition party has to bring about mass mobilisation, and if that doesn't work, a boycott is a must. Because of this dilemma of the second round - which I think is a legitimate concern - the issue has not been dealt with for too long. The reasons for this have not been discussed transparently and openly in public, nor have they been asked to be discussed. We are between two elections. Therefore, perhaps we should reflect on it a little. This time could have been used to create a social movement for the second round, a movement to protect the ballot box and the democratic process.

What exactly has changed? Immediately after the first round, the CHP concluded that the main message of the first round was more nationalism. On what was this conclusion based? It was drawn on the basis of the election results, which we do not know whether they are true or not, or to what extent they are true. If we look at Kılıçdaroğlu's talks, the expressions he uses, the statements he makes, the direction in which the party and the opposition in general direct their energy, we see this: "How many votes can we get from Sinan Oğan or nationalist voters?" We see that this is a decision made on behalf of the opposition in the most organised way, taking the risk of hurting the Kurds who voted for him. There is no serious calculation that the Kurds might lose the desire to vote. It is not yet clear where this will lead. It seems that there is a belief in the possibility of success in the second round with nationalism setting the whole agenda.

If we talk about Kurdistan; in Cizre, for example, tear gas was fired by the police and the military onto empty streets. That was also perceived as a provocation. What do you think the situation was like on this side?

The elections should be read by taking into account a structural difference in the situation of the Kurds compared to Turkey in general. There has been a continuous operation to suppress the rebellion since 2015. The elections took place within the framework of this operation. What I mean by this is that in the eyes of the government, not only the guerrillas in the mountains or the HDP as a political party and the members and leaders of the Green Left Party, but everything that has to do with society is seen on the level of war. For years, there has been a reward and punishment system based on people's political inclinations. The electoral process is also interwoven with this. All the people who live in the Kurdish provinces, what they think, what they feel, the cities they live in, the nature, the trade they engage in, the social support they receive or don't receive, all this is seen by the government and the state on a level of war. If we try to look at elections separately from this level, there is a much more complex equation to understand. Because if we look at the elections in this framework, safety in the Kurdish provinces is, of course, a much bigger problem.

The Kurdish region has the highest number of police and soldiers per capita. Consequently, it is also the place where the state authorities do the most organised and integrated work, not only on election night but also in the run-up to the elections. It is also the place where the governors constantly meet with the mukhtars [local chiefs] and where the provincial and district organisations of the AKP carry out the electoral work in close correspondence and coordination. At the same time, of course, it must be remembered that the period leading up to the elections was a time of intense pressure on everyone who was in any way connected to the state, such as civil servants or salary earners.

The wave of arrests and detentions of lawyers, journalists and even cultural workers just before the elections should not go unmentioned. Almost every two months there are operations against HDP leaders and members. There is no doubt that these operations are carried out to weaken the party organisation. What happened on election night can also be understood as an "I am here" declaration by the government, which considers the Kurdish geography as a theatre of war. In considering the events, there are a number of questions that need to be clarified and answered. Firstly, why did the police take to the streets in Cizre, Şırnak, Silopi and Nusaybin on election night? It made a serious effort to provoke people. Soldiers tried to create a climate of fear by shooting in the air for hours. Many people initially thought it was because the Kurds supported Kılıçdaroğlu to a large extent, but I don't think that is a convincing explanation.

Why actually?

If we try to understand that night only in isolation, that might be a sufficient explanation. But we also need to look at other developments and processes that took place that night. To understand the attitude of important state institutions in such extraordinary times, it may sometimes be necessary to look at the periphery of political processes rather than the centre. After all, every move in Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir that is accompanied by threats of violence comes at a price and casts a shadow on the "legitimacy" of the elections. One has to ask what is happening at the centre of politics and then ask some questions about the developments on the periphery. There are no clear answers to any of these questions, but we have the opportunity to speculate, as always. One of the most basic knots of the night is that while systematic irregularities were uncovered in the elections, they have not been fully clarified. First of all, the election results were announced through the Anadolu Agency, which amounted to psychological warfare. The ANKA agency, which the CHP partly trusts, also provided results that were very close to those of the Anadolu agency. Then it became clear that the CHP was not able to ensure safety at the ballot boxes.

Many irregularities were uncovered, which I have already mentioned at the beginning of the interview. The Green Left Party, as a newcomer, could not be in charge of the ballot boxes and it became clear that in many places there were very long waiting times in transmitting the results to the system. If we put all this together, it comes to the following point: we do not know exactly what happened that night, but one question that has to be asked is: what exactly was the aim of the provocations of the police and the army in the Kurdish provinces, especially in Botan, which was not on the agenda of many people? We do not know the answer to this question. I think this is one of the knots that needs to be thought about and followed up intellectually. It could be seen as a message to the Kurdish movement. It could also be an intimidation operation because of a possible social movement or uprising preceding the elections due to irregularities and attempts were made to prevent it in advance.

You say that this is not only directed against the Kurds....

Let me come back to 2019. The elections in Istanbul were not won a second time just because CHP members stood up and made statements. A kind of social movement spontaneously emerged. There was a process of activism in which social segments participated and voted for Ekrem Imamoğlu and supported him. This support has given Imamoğlu a lot of strength to ensure the safety of the elections in an organised way. Election safety is too serious a matter to be left to the YSK and the government, but the CHP did not organise it sufficiently. This is to be criticised, but on the other hand, we do not know whether the AKP would have accepted the election results that night if they had been different, and what preparations they made for this. Because if so, they either did not implement these preparations or only partially.

So, it is worth asking: Was this act of intimidation that took place that night in the Kurdish provinces just an attempt to provoke the Kurdish movement or the Kurdish people? Or did it actually contain a message to the opposition in general? We do not know. We probably won't be able to know in the short and medium term either. But I think there is a context that has to be taken into account.