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Turkey elections results tracker hopes to avoid 2019 fiasco

Anadolu Agency was accused of acting in favour of the ruling Justice and Development Party when it failed to update election data in local elections
The Turkish presidential election appears to be a tight contest between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his main challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu (AFP/file photo)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

Turkey's Anadolu news agency says it is looking to "reclaim" its image as a trusted source of election news when millions of Turks head to the polls on Sunday.

Officials at the agency told Middle East Eye that they are aiming to deliver up-to-the-minute results to the media after facing a deluge of criticism following the 2019 Istanbul municipal election.

The agency, which tabulates the vote count and distributes that information to the media, was accused of acting in favour of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) when it failed to update election data beyond the 98.7 percent mark for more than 12 hours during that year's vote.

That race, which saw both sides claim victory, eventually saw Ekrem Imamoglu beat Binali Yildirim, the candidate from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), by a narrow margin of 13,000 votes.

"We don't want to be a subject of the election debate, especially on the day of the vote," Yusuf Ozhan, the editor-in-chief at Anadolu, told MEE. 

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"We would want the public to talk about the election results rather than us."

At the time, Anadolu said it was waiting on the country's Supreme Election Council (YSK) to release an official declaration. It also said it hadn't received the results from the remaining one percent of uncounted ballots.

But the opposition wasn't impressed. 

They suspected an orchestrated effort to muddy the waters since the agency is funded by the Turkish Treasury and the government has a say over its management. 

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Founded more than 100 years ago, Anadolu is considered the main source of information on election results with local TV channels, newspapers and popular news sites relying on the agency for the latest updates.

Under new management, Ozhan says Anadolu wants to "reclaim the agency's legacy" by establishing a transparent system that can be relied upon. 

He said this year's election will see the emergence of new systems and processes such as agency staff taking pictures of every signed and stamped ballot box official result. The only challenge he can see is that there are around 191,000 of them nationwide. 

"Our total manpower is 2,500, that includes journalists, freelancers and administrative staff, who can cover 50,000 ballot boxes," he said. "But we will have at least a journalist in all and every 765 provincial districts where the records would be merged from the smaller districts."

In an attempt to address the gap, Anadolu has hired an unnamed polling and research company to cover the remaining polling stations and ballot box results. Ozhan said they cannot reveal the name since it is confidential business information. 

"Every other non-governmental organisation does the same, they have volunteers to collect ballot box results all over the country as we do," he said.

Tracking the vote

Turkey's opposition has long claimed that the country's elections are played out on an unequal playing field, a sentiment that is often backed by international observers.

Media coverage stands out as the most obvious example of where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoys an advantage over his opponents, but factors such as the use of state resources while campaigning and the questionable interpretation of electoral law also feature.

In recent weeks, the joint opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu has frequently lashed out at the election board and Anadolu over their perceived lack of impartiality. 

Last month, Kilicdaroglu's Republican People’s Party, or CHP as its commonly known, launched legal action against state broadcaster TRT for failing to screen its campaign video.

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But when it comes to tallying the vote, Turkey's election law, which was created in the 1950s, offers political parties a level of transparency not seen in many other countries.

Each political party, apart from the official ballot boards, has their own observers in polling stations, who attend the counting process and can file objections. They also take pictures of the ballot box results and submit it to their party system. 

They can even accompany the bags of votes that are being taken from district to provincial polling centres. 

Still, many civil society groups have established their own online system to track the votes. One such entity, known as Oy ve Otesi (Vote and Beyond) says it will assign 100,000 volunteers to collect the results. 

Sinan Taranoglu, the managing editor for the opposition-leaning Anka News Agency, the only other platform that can report the election results live, said that his team is also ready to cover the counting process. 

"We have 1,000 field personnel and 50 data centre personnel to track the election results," he told MEE. "We are organised in nearly 800 election directorates and completed our technological infrastructure with DNA Grup Consultancy."

Taranoglu said he's also cooperating with the civic group "Turkey Volunteers" which aims to mobilise and assign 60,000 people to polling stations to collect ballot records and ensure election safety.

Up-to-date results

Ozhan admits that a repetition of the 2019 mayoral elections, when candidates only have a very narrow lead, may put pressure on the agency. 

He added that there are always voting disputes at the polling stations where political parties file objections to local election boards, which can slow down the counting process. 

"When you complete the counting for 99 percent of the votes, and if it is neck and neck, you don’t have many choices," he said. "You cannot release complete data for the remaining one percent when it is disputed by any of the parties."

'We decided to cover the disputes at the polling stations to show that it isn’t us that is responsible for the late results, it is the parties'

- Yusuf Ozhan, editor in chief, Anadolu

But this time round Ozhan says Anadolu will constantly announce the number of disputed ballot boxes and the vote share to make sure that the agency isn’t perceived as disrupting the data flow. 

"Despite all the criticism against the agency in the past, when you can compare our data with the official results, and the difference is only minuscule, it is all about the timing," Ozhan said. 

"But we decided to cover the disputes at the polling stations to show that it isn’t us that is responsible for the late results, it is the parties."

Oguz Kaan Salici, the deputy chairman of the CHP, said that his party will collect ballot reports as they do in every election with at least half a million party members nationwide. 

"We aren't in competition with Anadolu Agency," Salici said. "CHP cannot live stream the results but we will announce our own findings by midnight on election day."

Turkey's electoral law bars political parties from publishing their election results, and the Supreme Election Council does not live stream the counting, with only political parties gaining access to the findings. 

Despite the criticism it faced after the 2019 election, Ozhan says that every major news publication, including independent journalists, have subscribed to Anadolu's election results service. 

"It is still unrivalled," he said. "That's why we will do everything to maintain that lead."

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