Road marker for elections in Turkey

Yet another road marker to indicate that the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is contemplating serious changes to affect the outcome of elections in Turkey has emerged in recent weeks. It is difficult to tell exactly what this road marker means and what the AK Party is up to with that, but something smells bad on the draft bill to change the public procurement law in order to allow a broad exception to the Supreme Election Board (YSK) to have direct purchases instead of competitive public bidding for purchasing all kinds of material related to elections, including printing ballot papers. The draft was approved in the Public Works, Construction, Transportation and Tourism Commission of Parliament on Oct. 30 and put on the Parliament agenda for voting on the floor. Given that the AK Party dominates the majority in Parliament, it is safe to assume that the bill will clear the floor easily, becoming a law of the land.

On face value, the reason offered by the 13 AK Party deputies who co-sponsored the bill seems plausible and justified. They advocate a view that the competitive and open bidding process takes 90 to 120 days to complete, while there are only 20 days left on average to print the ballot papers since the official nominee list by parties and independents were confirmed by the YSK. What is more, they say, there is only one week between the first and second round of presidential voting envisaged in the law, making it difficult to print the ballots for the run-off election in that short span of time. Supporters of the bill also underlined that both competitive bidding and direct purchase are subject to review by the Court of Accounts and the judicial system for any improprieties.

Previously the direct purchase system was only allowed for referendums, snap elections or mid-term elections. The exception only covered printing ballot papers. However the draft bill eliminates the competitive bidding for referendums and all elections — local, presidential and parliamentary — whether they are done on time or not. The scope of the direct procurement was also expanded to cover all election-related expenses in the draft. Considering that the local elections of March 2004 and the national elections of July 2007 were conducted by the YSK using an open and competitive bidding process, there is no hard evidence to support changes in the draft bill. The election commission had successfully managed past elections using open and transparent competitive bidding.

The opposition challenged the government’s position, saying that if the time allowed for tenders in printing paper ballots is not enough, the YSK as an independent body has a prerogative to schedule dates accordingly. It can push back or forward dates to allow enough time to take care of preparations for elections. If there are legal restrictions in place preventing such changes by the YSK, the opposition says the government should propose legislative changes to remove those barriers instead of doing away with the transparency of the competitive bidding system. They also say expanding the coverage for direct purchases for all election-related expenses without offering any justification for that does not bode well with the ostensibly good intention of the bill. I think these are valid questions.

First of all, I do not understand why the bill was submitted to the Public Works, Construction, Transportation and Tourism Commission in Parliament when in fact it should have gone to the Justice Commission or Planning and Budget Commission as they are more qualified to review changes related to the election and procurement that might have legal and financial implications. Strangely enough, none of the 13 deputies from the AK Party who co-sponsored the bill are members of the Public Works, Construction, Transportation and Tourism Commission. Seven co-sponsors are members of the Justice Commission, three in the Planning and Budget Commission, one in the Constitution Commission and two in the Human Rights Investigation Commission.

Moreover, the government, instead of submitting this bill as a government-sponsored bill, chose to go around by indirectly sending the bill through signatories from Parliament. This was intended to give the government some cover from any criticisms that might arise while suppressing the public discussion of the bill in detail. The timing of the bill also raises suspicions. As Parliament has entered into a major debate over next year’s budget while auditing last year’s budget, pushing a draft bill that will have financial ramifications in the budget does not make any sense. It hampers the accountability and transparency in government while giving an advantage to the governing party to call snap elections when it feels it has a relative advantage over the opposition.

If the government plans to hold snap national elections, which are scheduled for 2015, and merge them with the presidential elections of 2014, the bill may come in very handy for the government. The opposition will not be able to argue that the election commission cannot handle two important elections at the same time. If the parliamentary elections are to move back to summer of next year, the local elections in March of next year can also be moved forward to summer per the Constitution. Therefore we can have a very hot summer next year when all three elections — local, presidential and parliamentary — can be held together in Turkey.

Moreover, the AK Party government is keen to tap into overseas Turkish voters in both the presidential and parliamentary elections because it feels it has stronger support among expats. Since Turks living outside of Turkey will cast their votes for the first time in upcoming elections, there may be some challenges logistically and otherwise in a foreign country. Hence, the AK Party is preparing contingencies in overseas voting by submitting changes that will offer direct purchases for all election-related expenses in setting up booths and ballot boxes abroad.

The bill also gives an impression that contracts for election-related works may go to businesses that are closely aligned with the AK Party government. Since purchases will not be done through an open and competitive bidding process, the taxpayers’ money can be wasted in contracts with bureaucratic or political favoritism. In a country where even competitive bidding is prone to exploitation, the changes in this bill do not shore up transparency and accountability. Since it will also have an impact on elections, not only transparency in accounting but also transparency in democracy and governance may be dealt a blow in this case.

In the 2011 national elections, a major financial scandal was unearthed when the YSK had to cancel a tender to print ballot papers for the June 12 elections after the state agency State Supply Office (DMO), which is in charge of running the tender, said the final bid price was excessive. The DMO opened a tender on May 3 for the printing of ballot papers for voting in the elections. The best bid was Korza Publishing Industry Inc., which submitted a proposal for TL 11.9 million ($5.8 million). The second bidder, Başak Publishing and Promotion Services Ltd, offered TL 12 million. The DMO objected to the terms of the tender, which ruled out any company located outside of Ankara to enter into bidding. It asked the election commission to revise terms to get better pricing. In the second tender held three days later, Korza was again the winner of the tender but with a significant price reduction of some TL 10 million. Korza’s offer of TL 899,000 ($440,000) won the tender. Cutting down the bid to one-12th of the original in only three days saved taxpayers some TL 10 million.

At the time, YSK President Ali Em did not offer any convincing argument to explain such a big difference and simply said the election commission was trying to make sure the ballot papers are printed on time. Korza was later sanctioned by the Ankara Chamber of Industry (ASO) with disciplinary proceedings. The chamber said the huge price difference cannot be justified and, as such, the company violated the business code of ethics. The chamber in a unanimous decision censored the company.

Financial implications of the draft bill aside, I think its possible impact on the election is far more important to consider here. Turkey has always had free and fair elections as observed by international organizations such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The AK Party has to be very careful not to taint that image and include all the stakeholders in a discussion when proposing changes that might have an impact on the elections.

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