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Turkish opposition accuse government of legalising 'election fraud'

Critics fear new rules on electoral coalitions and security forces inside polling booths could erode democratic accountability
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flanked by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, greets people during the AKP group meeting at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara, Turkey (AFP)

A package of new electoral rules in Turkey has caused uproar among opposition politicians who see it as an opportunity for gerrymandering and vote-rigging by the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP).

The 26-article bill, passed in the parliament in the early hours of Tuesday morning, introduces a new raft of measures including giving the High Electoral Board the ability to merge electoral districts and move ballot boxes between districts, allowing security services to enter voting stations, and providing for the creation of electoral alliances between parties.

The passing of the measures provoked brawls between supporters of the AKP, its ultra-nationalist allies the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and supporters of the secular-nationalist Republican Peoples Party (CHP) and leftist People's Democracy Party (HDP).

The leader of the CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, slammed the new measures as the "election fraud law" and accused the MHP and AKP of quietly sneaking the legislation through parliament.

“They hid the package from the nation. Why? Because the law explains line by line how election fraud can be conducted,” he said on Tuesday.

The legislation is largely a boon for the MHP, which some polls have predicted could fall below the electoral threshold in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

Throughout Turkish political history, numerous political parties tweaked electoral laws as a last resort to remedy party fatigue and erosion of popular support

- Aykan Erdemir, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Electoral laws established following the 1980 military coup mean that a party must pass a 10 percent vote threshold in order to enter parliament. The rules were originally introduced to prevent smaller fringe parties - whom the military rulers viewed as a major factor in the political instability of the 70s - from being able to assert influence.

Since the rules were introduced, smaller political parties (including, at one point, the AKP) have repeatedly called for them to be repealed. However, no ruling party has yet done so.

The MHP has long been a force on the far-right of Turkish politics, but the unpopularity of current leader Devlet Bahceli, and the splitting away in 2017 of a number of popular MPs to form the Iyi Party, has severely dented the party's electoral prospects.

As such, the ability for the MHP to combined their votes with the AKP's and bypass the threshold could help the party remain in parliament.

The move continues the political alliance between the AKP and MHP which saw the latter - to the disgruntlement of many supporters - backing the 2017 referendum on the creation of a super-presidency and backing Recep Tayyip Erdogan as their 2019 candidate for the role.

"There’s really only one conceivable alliance, which is that the MHP will join the AKP," said Nate Schenkkan, project director for Nations In Transit, at US think tank Freedom House. "This is great for the MHP, because it might have trouble clearing the threshold on its own. In that sense, it is a small party that will benefit from the change.

"But even more so, it is great for the AKP, because under Turkey’s system for apportioning votes that fall below the threshold, the largest vote-getter gets the highest share. So if, for instance, HDP, Iyi Party, and (Islamist party) Saadet all fail to clear, the bulk of those votes will go to the AKP-MHP alliance. The result is that the alliance will likely get a huge majority in parliament."

'Like a train'

Since 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP have been the main electoral success story in Turkey. In election after election  the party repeatedly managed to secure majorities in the parliament in elections that were deemed free and fair by foreign observers.

Despite worries over Erdogan's comment in the 90s that democracy was "like a train" where “you get off once you've reached your destination" and the increasing arrests of journalists and other critics in the media, few doubted that the AKP had secured its parliamentary majorities with legitimate public support.

The first troubles for the AKP occured in June 2015 when the success of the HDP - which took votes from the AKP in the Kurdish southeast - led to the AKP losing its majority for the first time since 2002.

Following the bombing of socialist activists in the border town of Suruc the next month and the shooting of a number of police officers by Kurdish militants, war re-erupted in the southeast between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

In the months to follow, hundreds were killed in fighting and much of the HDP's heartland in the southeast was reduced to rubble, with curfews and military restrictions imposed on movement.

When the AKP managed to regain its majority in the November 2015 elections (which took place after the main parties failed to create a coalition), the OSCE warned that it had "serious concerns" over how the poll was conducted and said that "physical attacks on party members, as well as the significant security concerns, particularly in the south-east" had affected the ability of parties to campaign.

An electoral staff member shows a ballot during the counting process after polls closed in Turkey's tightly-contested referendum on expanding the powers of the president on April 16, 2017 in Diyarbakir, (AFP)

With violence continuing in the southeast and the region still heavily securitised, there were more claims of irregularity in voting during the 2017 constitutional referendum to decide on the creation of a super-presidency, with one observer from the Council of Europe suggesting that 2.5 million votes could have been manipulated.

Opposition parties were particularly angered by the decision of the High Election Board to allow unstamped ballots to be accepted in the results. Among the measures introduced in the new electoral law is to accept unstamped ballots in all future polls.

The new electoral law will strengthen the majoritarian character of the Turkish regime, and further undermine political participation and deliberative democratic tradition

- Aykan Erdemir, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

"Allowing security services near polling booths and moving ballot boxes between districts are both primarily aimed at intimidating the Kurdish electorate, with the intended goal of pushing the HDP below the 10 percent threshold and hence out of the parliament," said Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former member of the Turkish parliament.

"The new electoral law will strengthen the majoritarian character of the Turkish regime, and further undermine political participation and deliberative democratic tradition."

Erdemir, a former CHP parliamentarian who had his assets seized and an arrest warrant issued by the Turkish government over what he called "fake" and "political" accusations related to a corruption case in the US, warned that the moves were symbolic of a decaying political party system in Turkey.

"Throughout Turkish political history, numerous political parties tweaked electoral laws as a last resort to remedy party fatigue and erosion of popular support," he told MEE.

"So far, there hasn't been a single case where such trickery succeeded in rejuvenating political parties. The AKP and the MHP would fare better if they spent their energies to reform their policies and parties."