ISTANBUL—With nearly half of votes counted, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party is ahead in Sunday’s snap parliamentary election after voters headed to the polls for the second time in five months.
Voters say there is no doubt about the critical importance of the polls with some in the Fatih district of Istanbul voicing anxiety about increased civil conflict in the country depending on the result.
“I expect we will get the same result as in June and if the parties don’t cooperate and arrange a coalition government, then I really don’t know what will happen,” said 32-year-old Duydu, an environmental engineer, had just voted.
June’s elections were inconclusive with no party able to form a single-party government.
Earlier police had asked this reporter to leave the polling site, “You can’t be here because you are a stranger,” said a policemen as others demanded documents and passport. An electoral stronghold of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), a large proportion of women voters wore a hijab.
You can tell which party people will vote for depending on what they are wearing,” said Duydu. “Liberal dress, liberal vote,” she laughed, pointing to her jeans, T-shirt and uncovered, long dark-hair. She confirmed she supported the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Voters turn out early
Voters turned out early too at other Istanbul polling stations for one of the most significant elections in Turkey’s history. The poll has been backdropped by rising political violence, jihadist bombings, renewed hostilities between Kurdish separatists and Turkish authorities, an influx of refugees from neighboring Syria and a plunging economy.
One of the first politicians to vote was the liberal pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş.
“I hope the political results will be the most beneficial for all of us,” he told reporters crowding around. “All of the country desires comfort and peace most. It was a tough and troubled campaign period. Unfortunately we also have lost lives,” Demirtaş said in reference to the October 10 bombing of a peace rally that left 102 people dead in Ankara.
Demirtaş, whose party denied the AKP a majority in parliamentary polls in June because of its strong performance, is hoping to attract more non-Kurdish middle-class voters.
One of the HDP’s key election messages is that a vote for the party will help not only the HDP, but the other two parliamentary parties, the CHP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), to cut further into the Islamist’s seat count, forcing the AKP to agree to form a coalition government with someone.
In the general election on June 7, the AK Party got 258 deputies with a 41 percent share of the vote. It needs an additional 18 deputies to secure single-party rule once again.
Election could be ‘turning point’
Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahçeli cast his vote in Ankara, saying: “I think that the election will be a turning point in terms of the nation’s future.”
Shortly after polling stations opened there were mounting reports of the presence of cars without license plates or tags outside polling stations. There have been rising claims by opposition parties the AKP has plans to rig votes, possibly at district election stations where ballots are counted.
Opposition worries are fueled by the tweets of a government whistleblower who uses the pseudonym Fuat Avni. The whistleblower says government figures had held regular meetings exploring how to manipulate the election result. He also claimed the AKP may try to manipulate the computer-based electoral record system, but the Supreme Election Board issued a statement insisting the system is reliable and tamper-proof.
Opposition parties are also collecting vote data and say they will compare it with official ballot box results. Before the polls, President Erdoğan met regularly with muhtars, the lowest-level local administrators, prompting further opposition claims of possible manipulation plans.
“This gives the impression of a possible election fraud that could involve them,” Erdal Aksünger, a CHP adviser told the Zaman newspaper. The muhtars are responsible for storing the ballots of those who don’t intend to vote.
Concerns have been raised about the possible disenfranchisement about 672,000 voters from the June election who are missing from voter lists for today’s election.
Local AKP officials dismiss the idea the party would have to steal the election to win an outright majority of parliamentary seats, saying voter turnout would be much higher than June. Mohamed said “This time it could be as high as 90 percent, and that will favor us, our share of the vote will increase.”
Voter sentiments run high, with some saying in the end the elections are about President Erdoğan. “He is a dictator,” said 21-year-old Mehmet, a student. “Turkey needs a strong, nationalist leader, but not Erdoğan. I voted for the nationalists.”
Thirty-eight-year-old Karolin agreed. “This election is about Erdoğan,” she said.
Most polling stations have been peaceful, but in Kocaeli province east of Istanbul police fired tear gas to separate AKP and CHP supporters when a quarrel erupted over relatives helping a frail 80-year-old woman cast her vote.
Voting in Istanbul, President Erdoğan said, “This election was necessitated as a result of the unstable outcome of the June 7 elections. It has become apparent how important stability is to our nation.”