Margaret Owen, who took part in a delegation to southeast Turkey to monitor the recent snap elections, has produced this report based on her observations. Alongside Margaret were several others, including barrister Melanie Gingell, John Hunt, journalist; and Kawa Besarani, human rights advocate and political analyst; and academic David Graeber, among others.
The results, that came in on Sunday night took many of us, the international observers of the election, by surprise. Last night we wept, as the first fireworks, music and song, of what everyone thought would introduce a night of celebration, turned into dark hours of grief and anger, which ended when the armed police arrived with their tear gas and water cannon, stone throwing from the youth, arrests and more violence.
How will the peace process with the Kurds be resurrected after this result? When Erdogan himself has stated that it is in tatters. But perhaps all is not lost for ever. The AKP got a majority but not a “super” majority in numbers. He will still need support from the other parties to rewrite the Constitution in the way he wants, that is, to give himself a life presidency and in reality, a dictatorship, far removed from Ataturk’s creation of a secular republic. At least the HDP kept its 10% threshold. Although they lost many votes they still have representation in parliament. It could have been worse.
Our UK delegation had been in Diyarbakir for the previous 2 days, having meetings with the HDP, with Kurdish lawyers Bar associations and with civil society and Kurdish Womens organisations. Not one person during our many hours of discussions predicted that the Erdogan’s AKP party would increase its vote and obtain the majority the President needed to govern without having to form a coalition. So of course it was a shock and a grave disappointment when there had been such optimism.
The general forecast was that either the results would be the same as in the June election, or that the HDP would increase its votes and numbers of MPs. It was hoped that many intelligent Turkish citizens having growing concerns about the increase in authoritarianism, the move from a secular state to one much more Islamic, issues with corruption, and concerns about Erdogan’s ambiguous connections with ISIL would vote HDP.
There was increasing evidence the justice system was a disgrace, lacking any independence, and that use of torture by police and security personnel during arrests, in detention and in prisons was making Turkey a target for condemnation by international human rights organisations and liberal thinkers. The thousands of political prisoners including lawyers, politicians, trade unionists, journalists and teachers , the attacks on the press and the collapse of the peace process with the Kurds, when most people wanted peace, would bolster extra votes for the HDP.
Alas this did not happen. So fearful were the AKP of possible defeat that the week before the election they raided and closed down
several media outlets, blocked mobile phone communication, and, we were told, used a variety intimidation tactics, as well as “buying votes” by dispensing money bribes to poor people in some of the villages.
Before the election, and around the time of the massacres in Cizire and Sur, Turkish governors in the Kurdish regions were ordered to dismiss their Kurdish co-mayors, and 22 of these men and women, have been arrested and imprisoned under the anti terror act for allegedly supporting the PKK and their cousins across the border in Rojava.
Our group observed the election process by visiting 6 schools in Sur, a poor area of Diyarbakir. We were able to enter the classrooms where the voting room place. And watch how people came with their IDs, and were instructed how to stamp the voting slips, which contained the flag symbols of 16 parties. We also managed to remain in the room in one school where the count took place. In this South East part of Turkey, by decree, that clocks had not turned back as in the rest of the country, adding to confusion and uncertainty.
The polls opened at 8 a.m and closed at 5 pm in the west, but here the hours of voting were from 7 am to 4pm, and it was expected that some voters, especially the old and illiterate, would get to their voting venue too,late. Here are just some of the concerns we had about the fairness and transparency if this election:
1. The presence of armed police and of armoured tanks within the school precincts. Police were not, under the election management rules, allowed to enter the rooms where people came to vote, nor park armoured tanks within the school playgrounds, In 3 of the 5 schools, the tanks were there, surrounded by police with their fingers on the trigger.
2. The tension and the fear the presence of the armed police was palpable. For the people were still traumatised by the violence of the police raids, the bombing and shootings of September in Cizire and Sur, and the deeply distressing and unjustifiable desecration of Kurdish cemeteries. We were told that many residents, registered to vote here, had left the area as their houses were destroyed, or they were too frightened to stay. These poor people did not return to vote, partly because such a journey would be expensive, because they had lost faith in the process and also because they were frightened.
3. The police, in one school where they refused to move their tanks to the road outside claimed that they were ” defending the people as this district was a terrorist zone” and that their armoured tanks would,block traffic if parked in the lanes outside . There were rumours that police snipers were staking out positions on school roof tops, which impelled some of the people to break down a locked door on the top floor and go up to ensure no police were up there. This reaction indicated the intensity of the fear among the voters.
4. We learnt that the AKP had flooded the villages with money bribes and with white goods, to “buy” votes. We heard several.accounts of intimidation, threats to take away benefits, jobs, etc. unless they voted for the AKP.
5 . Although the abolition of the Village Guards was one of the several conditions set out in the Copenhagen criteria ( for accession to the EU) , last month the Government appointed another 5,000 village guards, these people would have been used to bolster support for the AKP,in the rural areas, using any means they chose.
6. Shortly before the election, it was ordered that there should be ” consolidation of the ballot boxes” . In some towns,and villages deemed areas of violence and instability the boxes would be removed and residents there would need to travel to wherever their boxes had been relocated. Illiteracy, poverty, and transport problems were likely to have caused some loss of votes for the HDP as in every polling booth room there were many registered to vote who failed to turn up. Or maybe they came after 4 pm, not realising that the clocks in the South East were still on summer time.
7. We were never refused entry to the schools nor to the voting rooms, and indeed were greeted warmly by the municipal officials who were managing the voting process. People were frightened that the police would target them if they saw them talking to our delegation. The HDP and the Human Rights Association told us ” make your presence known” and we did. But monitoring elections for fairness and transparency really requires observers to be around some weeks before and some days after. We only had 2 days , so our observations were necessarily limited.
Our principal concerns on the day of the election was the heavy presence of the armed police and the tanks in places they should not be, if elections are to be fair, and voters are not intimidated.
Margaret Owen, human rights barrister and Peace in Kurdistan Campaign patron