So much of Turkey’s energy and time has recently been devoted to solving crises in the highest military and judicial institutions resulting from “old school” proponents putting up heavy resistance to further democratization, accountability and complete transparency. In the meantime, we have lost sight of the forest for the trees, as another higher state institution continues to be a major obstacle on the way to secure, full-fledged democracy in Turkey: the Supreme Election Board (YSK).
The members of this board have either no grasp of the meaning of “voter disenfranchisement” and can plead ignorance, or they have been trying hard to protect the old school mentality in the governance of this country, which can hardly be described as democratic. Turkey’s top election commission’s insistence on having voters’ present identity cards bearing their national identification numbers before voting risks major voter disenfranchisement in the public, thereby casting a shadow on the results of the upcoming referendum on constitutional reform.
Despite the government’s campaign to mobilize people to get new ID cards bearing their identification numbers before the upcoming referendum, set for Sept. 12, the current number of voters who do not have these IDs stands at 1.4 million, equivalent to the population of Estonia. This is not a negligible number and could easily be grounds for the dismissal of the results if we lived in a real democracy. Unfortunately, we still lack maturity in the democratic governance of this country, and the YSK can easily throw away a sizable community based on its own rigid reasoning.
The denial of the constitutionally guaranteed, inalienable right to cast a vote took its toll on another community in Turkey in the elections held last year and is likely to be repeated in the upcoming referendum, as well. In last year’s local elections, 4 million of Turkey’s 8.5 million disabled citizens eligible to vote were not able to do so because the polling booths were inaccessible. The YSK failed to make sure ballot boxes were placed on the ground floor for disabled citizens. To add insult to injury, the YSK last year actually sent letters to 300,000 disabled individuals to tell them not to vote because no such accommodations were made.
Another community victimized by the YSK is Turkish expatriates, who are obliged for no good reason whatsoever to go to the nearest Turkish border crossing to cast their votes. Since many people do not have the means or time to make such a trip, millions of Turkish expatriates will not have a say in the reforms that will shape the country’s future. According to a constitutional amendment adopted in 1995, it is a constitutional right for Turkish expatriates to be granted the means to vote. However, successive governments have since failed to adopt the necessary legislation to guarantee this, and the YSK has never taken a step toward placing ballot boxes in Turkish embassies abroad.
The result is that about half of the approximately 5 million Turkish citizens living in European countries will be denied their right to vote in the referendum. If they were to vote, for example, in national elections, Europe would be Turkey’s fourth largest electoral region after İstanbul, which has 7.5 million voters and 70 deputies; Ankara, with its 2.9 million voters and 29 deputies; and İzmir, which has 2.5 million voters and 24 deputies.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled on July 7 in the case of Sitaropoulos and Giakoumopoulos v. Greece that the practice of forcing people to travel to vote violated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The court found that the obligation to travel “considerably complicated the exercise of their right because it entailed expenses and disturbance to their professional and family life.” Since Turkey is a party to the ECHR, the government has prepared draft legislation that will allow Turkish citizens residing abroad to vote in general elections without having to come to Turkey in person. Hopefully it will make it to the president’s desk in time for the next national elections, due in 2011.
I believe the European court’s decisions may help break the grip of the YSK over Turkish voters and convince skeptical governments in Europe to agree on the exercise of this right. Currently a number of countries such as Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark with high Turkish populations have not allowed Turkish citizens to cast votes in Turkish embassies or consulates, citing security concerns.
With traction gained through the European court’s ruling abroad and reform momentum garnered at home, we might be able to put the YSK up for a major overhaul following a victory for the constitutional amendments in the referendum. The reform of Turkey’s top election board is already long overdue and has caused major voter alienation for so many years.