Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), predictably, has got its way in Istanbul, where the country’s Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) ruled in favour of the ruling party’s appeal to annul and rerun the mayoral election. So why is the party still acting so aggrieved weeks later?
Perhaps the YSK’s detailed reasoning, published on Wednesday, will give us a clue. Did the electoral board’s 250-page document provide evidence for the AKP’s claims that the election had been stolen?
It did not. The reasoning set out by the seven YSK judges who approved the annulment rested on the discovery of small-scale irregularities – faults with 108 paper tallies, for example – and the fact that 754 polling stations had been chaired by non-public officials, a contravention of regulations.
The dissenting opinions presented by YSK chief and three other judges gave compelling reasons that none of these irregularities justified an annulment.
The polling committees in question also included representatives from political parties, including the AKP, who observed and approved of the counting process. There was no correlation found between the questionable polling committee chairs and the other irregularities found. Moreover, the technical faults were not found to have influenced the result of the election.
Conspicuously absent from the YSK’s decision was any solid evidence to prove the AKP’s assertion that the election had been stolen.
Who stole it? They did. Who are they? This is the 10-million-vote question that the ruling party and its proxies have not summoned the courage to answer.
Going along with this must be excruciating for the journalists who earn their keep pushing the government’s line on pro-government outlets.
Take Ahmet Hakan’s interview with Ekrem İmamoğlu, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate who won the first Istanbul election on March 31.
Hakan hosted İmamoğlu on his Tarafsız Bölge – unbiased zone – programme on CNN Türk on Monday. The Istanbul rerun was, naturally, top of the agenda for discussion.
It at least gave the CHP mayor an opportunity to respond to the barrage of accusations the ruling party had launched since the results of March 31 came in.
And such claims: the ruling party said polling officials had conspired to not give ballot papers for the mayoral election (and only the mayoral election, out of four votes cast on the day) to “people who looked like AKP voters”. At one stage they said a similar plot had been staged based on voters’ names.
They said over a thousand people had cast votes using dead voters’ names, and many more had been cast under the names of people who had been disqualified from voting. They also said a higher number of discounted AKP votes than CHP votes had been validated in recounts after March 31, and this proved that fraud had taken place in the first count.
None of this was borne out in the YSK’s ruling this week. But in the words of AKP Deputy Chair Ali İhsan Yavuz, “even if nothing actually happened, something definitely happened but we just couldn’t see it”.
İmamoğlu addressed many of these claims during the interview on Monday, for the most part maintaining his calm.
At one point, the CHP mayor pointed out that if officials had purposefully kept ballots for the mayoral election from suspected AKP voters, the total votes for that election would be lower than the others. It was, in fact, thousands higher.
AKP officials discussing the findings of recounts since March 31 have given the impression that their party has been uniquely affected by votes that were invalidated for questionable reasons. The interview allowed İmamoğlu to dispute that claim, too, by explaining that a comparable number of his party’s votes, too, had been validated in the recount after being declared void on March 31.
İmamoğlu likewise responded to one of the main reasons cited in the YSK’s justification – the claims that 108 faulty tally sheets had affected the vote’s outcome – a day before the justification was published.
Despite some CHP claims to the contrary, Hakan was a relatively amenable figure and allowed his guest the chance to answer the claims regarding the election. What was so frustrating, though, was watching the host demean himself by repeating the ruling party’s claims.
To a degree this was inevitable given the subject matter. But when Hakan presented the claims that the elections had been stolen, and İmamoğlu challenged him to answer by whom, the interviewer was unable to address the matter directly.
“You’re a member of the press with years of experience, when the president and Binali Yıldırım says ‘they’ve stolen (votes)’, who do you think they’re talking about?” İmamoğlu responded with some frustration.
Hakan had in fairness put the question several times to Yıldırım, İmamoğlu’s AKP rival in the Istanbul race, during a previous interview. Given Yıldırım’s inability to answer that basic question, it was sad to see the journalist repeat the claim a week later.
Viewers of Hakan’s show were outraged later when it appeared the presenter had cut the interview with İmamoğlu early before he could present claims of wasteful spending by the AKP’s Istanbul municipal administrations.
Later claims said that CNN Türk had fired cameramen for providing close-ups of İmamoğlu’s data. Whether either of these claims was true, the charade of objectivity Hakan hid behind to present the ruling party’s unfounded claims about the March 31 election as a journalist asking questions was an outrage.
But then again, the entire affair was an outrage. And with no real justification to cling on to in the YSK decision, and certainly none that can explain to the average citizen why only the mayoral vote out of the four cast in the same envelope was cancelled, the AKP has been left with little option to cry thief.
So, that was the major story headlining a large part of the Turkish media this week. Yeni Şafak’s front page on Friday claimed, falsely, that the YSK’s reasoned decision had cast doubt on more than 200,000 votes. The headline: “They stole more than you thought”.
Sabah columnist Hilal Kaplan similarly shared a clipped screenshot of the YSK’s document that included a sentence saying 300,000 ballots were doubtful. “Let’s look again at whether or not the YSK said votes had been stolen” read Kaplan’s comment on Twitter. The problem is, the quote came from a summary of the AKP’s appeal on the report’s second page.
By the weekend, front pages were carrying Yıldırım’s unfounded message that the AKP had actually won the most votes on March 31 but had been deprived of his victory by fraud.
“30,281 votes evaporated at 108 ballot boxes”, read Yeni Akit’s front page on Friday, adding that the YSK had “documented theft in Istanbul article by article”. The news referred to the 108 ballot boxes with unsigned or missing vote tallies. As the dissenting opinions stated, the votes at these ballot boxes had been counted, verified by officials, and entered into the electronic system without issue.
“We won’t leave this business to thieves”, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday, in a speech that was widely pushed on front pages the next day.
The story of the theft will continue for the weeks leading up to the rerun on June 23. But without anyone to present as perpetrators, the ruling party’s often-used “victim” narrative is on especially shaky ground and is in danger of being reversed.