Local elections in Turkey – on the verge of polarization and cohesion

In Turkey, large scale citizen mobilization in defense of votes in the recent local elections shows the government’s loss of credibility and trust in the eyes of the majority of citizens. It also shows the decisiveness of public in their ongoing struggle for democracy and clean politics. Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as his statements get ever aggressive and polarizing, may be doing more good than harm in terms of unification of citizens under one umbrella; certainly against himself. The public seems to be winning as they are defeated and defeated again.

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By Derya Yüksek

The local elections held in Turkey on March 30 – which the government turned into a referendum in order to legitimize their position in response to increasing opposition and serious corruption claims – seems to have favoured the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), despite the fall in its overall support compared to previous local elections and amongst various claims of election fraud, particularly in big cities and border districts.

Until now, much has been written on the results of elections, evaluating the outcomes as well as their possible impacts on the political system and the future of politics in Turkey. Very little has been written, however, about the process, with the country seeing the largest citizen mobilization to date in defense of their votes.

For the elections, the civil collective “Oy ve Ötesi” (Vote and Beyond), describing itself as the united spirit of Gezi Resistance that is at an equal distance to all political parties, has succeeded in mobilizing more than 26,000 citizens in Istanbul, with 4,000 more in Ankara and other cities through sister movements, in order to assume an active role in the election as “observers”.

Gathering together through these collectives or acting individually, the public’s decisiveness for “owning and chasing” their votes turned into a 24-hour “vote watch”, particularly in the cities where the observation results produced significant discrepancies with the results announced by Turkish Supreme Board of Elections (YSK). For all these “civil observers”, the night of 30th March was the longest. Joining the voting and counting process from the beginning and accompanying their votes until the district electoral centers, the citizens endeavoured to maintain the security of their votes till the end, which sometimes meant standing guard at the schools and electoral centers for days. Among them, the youth actively volunteered in the counter-counting of votes for the confirmation of officialized results, by occupying the election center of the main opposition party CHP, with their computers, laptops and mobiles. Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been heavily used to follow and locate the original election results of ballot boxes obtained by civil observers, which were then submitted to the civil collectives that recounted the votes to highlight the differences with official results that have become the basis for opposition parties’ objections to YSK.

No matter what the outcome is, these citizens seem to be the real “winner” of the elections and signalled an inclination towards monitoring of the political system as a whole in its each and every step, especially when democracy and the rule of law are considered to be at stake.

Election results for Ankara – right and left are brothers

The capital city Ankara had a more intense picture, not only because the Supreme Board and government bodies are located there, but also because it was the scene of the highest number of fraud allegations evidenced through original documents obtained by civil observers.

The citizens, who gathered at schools, district election centers and YSK to protest the allegations of election fraud, as well as the sided approach claimed to be taken by district and provincial election boards with regard to these claims, demonstrated for a second time after Gezi Resistance how they struggle together for democracy despite coming from different backgrounds and ideologies. Particularly, the solidarity among nationalists and socialists, which were historically the biggest adversaries of each other in the context of Turkey, has been remarkable and reflected in the slogans “Right and Left are Brothers”. This is yet another major avenue for social cohesion among citizens, who were torn a part due to the legacy of the past. Unfortunately they have encountered the same brutality of police, who attacked the protesting citizens with tear gas and water cannons.

Here it should also be noted that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been consciously engaged in polarizing citizens since the mass revolt in June 2013. Erdogan himself largely failed to stand in equal distance to citizens, deliberately differentiating between those that voted for his party and those that did not. Though his statement of “hardly keeping the 50% of public at home” during Gezi protests has been falsified with 44% support for his party in the recent elections, he has been partly successful in distancing his voter base from the rest of the public, whose marginalization was attempted through repeated discourses describing them as terrorists, marginal groups and lobbies with foreign links. He even attributed the serious corruption claims that caused four of his ministers to resign, to the initiatives of some lobbies to discredit him and his party. Erdogan’s attempts partly paid-off in creating antagonism among his voter base and those of the opposition parties. These attempts had a more systematic character during and after the elections, with the government striving hard to reflect the result of elections as a victory, with manipulated results and news on major media channels, including the state owned news agency, as well as the “famous” balcony talk and victory statements made before the election results were announced in full- consciously presenting the elections not as a local but a national one.

Nevertheless, as a response to these overt polarization attempts, the citizens resist by seeking ways to unite further. What cannot be ignored is that the large scale citizen mobilization in defense of votes shows the government’s loss of credibility and trust in the eyes of the majority of citizens. It also shows the decisiveness of the public in their ongoing struggle for democracy and clean politics, which could set an example for the world. Accordingly, Erdogan, as his statements get ever aggressive and polarizing, may be doing more good than harm in terms of the unification of citizens under one umbrella; certainly against himself.

It seems that the citizens of Turkey are starting to realize the difference between liberation, to be free from oppression, and freedom, participation in public affairs and admission to the public realm. The mobilization of citizens for elections, which is expected to grow further in the upcoming Presidential elections this August, hints at a strong transformation among the public, particularly among youth, towards freedom. The public comes to realize that they need active participation in political life in order for their demands to be satisfied. They seem to be winning as they are defeated and defeated again.

Is democracy through elections still possible?

The case of Turkey brings forth a pressing question about world politics: is democracy through elections still possible? If we speak about Turkey, the civil mobilization for elections may have set a good example for the union and solidarity of the public in defense of democracy, however the fraud claims and demands for recounts, followed by the Supreme Board’s seemingly sided approach in handling these (i.e. its rejection of re-counting claims of opposition parties and accepting those of the governing party), raised serious concerns about the independence of state institutions. These kinds of events shed a huge shadow on the power of elections to represent the true will of the public against possible manipulations by dominant powers, and raise worries over the legitimacy of elections.

Furthermore, though fair elections are a prerequisite of democracy, the resistance movements that we increasingly see across the world make it clear that much more is needed to ensure a real democracy, giving voice to and realizing the demands of all citizens, since maintaining majority at the parliaments most of the time brings about a kind of discretionary power without accountability. Even if we assume that representative democracy works well in terms of reflecting the will of voters; what constitutes a “majority”, “voter” or even “citizen” is still a question, a response to which should take account of the rights and demands of the “other”.

This raises other questions: are democratic elections sufficient to safeguard the rights of all affected individuals and groups? To what extent are citizens’ demands and proposals represented in parliaments? If and how should the political systems and institutions transform in order to respond to the demands of all citizens in an effective way?

Democracy safeguards public scrutiny, participation and choice through electoral system, however, in its current state, the electoral system seems to be ineffective in responding to the demands of ever-increasing complexity and immediacy. An electoral system is rather passive, whereas the complex issues of modern life necessitate citizens to move beyond passive participation by providing “yes-no” opinions for selecting their representatives, or to the policies and actions proposed by those. Instead of responding to an agenda and priorities of a political or state institution, the citizens must be able to pro-actively recommend agendas and communicate political demands and monitor the responses, in order to ensure a real democracy, a democracy that is not only a slogan.

As the latter is a shared aim of many citizen movements of our time, which increasingly have their presence felt on countries and governments, these seem to be the agenda setting themes of the political world in the near future.

Derya Yuksek is a researcher and peace activist from Turkey. With a specialization on cooperation projects and EU policies, she works as a project manager and consultant designing and coordinating projects that foster international partnerships in the field of art, culture, education, media, and peacebuilding.

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