o doubt, the most fundamental pillar of democracy is free and fair elections. Indeed, what gives a regime its democratic character is elections based on universal suffrage in which more than one political party contests in a free competitive environment. Of course, today’s democracies are not just about the ballot box. It is indispensable for liberal democracies that political powers, even once elected, are limited by checks and balances, that power is distributed through the principle of separation of powers, and that an independent judiciary protects fundamental rights and freedoms. But nothing lessens the importance of elections—democracy’s most characteristic and valuable feature.
Especially in countries like Turkey, where large segments of society have long been kept in the periphery, away from the political and economic centers of power, elections are the only way to give the larger public open access to politics. Turkish voters have embraced their right to vote ever since the transition to multiparty life in 1950. Turkey has always had one of the highest voter turnout rates in elections: in the 21 presidential and parliamentary elections held since 1950, the average turnout rate has been 82.2 percent. This is one of the highest turnout rates in the world.
Actually, citizens’ active participation in the elections and their prudent choices have always guided Turkish politics in the right direction. The bureaucratic elite’s attempts at social and political engineering in Turkey have failed multiple times at the ballot box. Elections have been the main breathing space for Turkish democracy against efforts by the military and the judiciary to restrict freedoms and place politics under their tutelage.
The demilitarization of the political sphere, the elimination of tutelage, the strengthening of the regime’s democratic legitimacy, the more equitable distribution of welfare, and the elimination of marginalizing practices targeting religious masses and different ethnic affiliations, especially Kurds, have all been made possible in Turkey by the civilian politicians who were brought to power through fair elections.
The Primacy of the Ballot Box in Turkey
In Turkey’s elections, the national will has been able to manifest itself to the detriment of the ruling political parties, i.e., those that dominate the state apparatus. Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party, which left its mark on a decade of Turkish politics with its paradigm-shifting reforms, was defeated as the third party in the 1989 local elections.
In its thirteenth year in power, the AK Party, which has managed to stay in power for the longest period in Turkey’s multiparty political life, lost 9 percent of its votes in the June 7, 2015 elections compared to the previous elections and lost the majority in the legislative assembly. In the 2018 general elections, the AK Party won the presidential elections, but failed to win an absolute majority in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. In the 2019 local elections, the AK Party lost the mayorships of Ankara and Istanbul, although it did not lose the overall national vote.
These examples show that the election mechanism in Turkey delivers healthy results regardless of who is in power. Leaving aside the shady 1946 elections, recent and distant experience shows that the people’s preferences are truly reflected in the election results. In other words, Turkish elections have proven their credibility in practice.
Almost 200 Years of Electoral Experience
Turkey’s experience with elections can be traced back approximately 200 years. Although the municipal council elections held during the Tanzimat period (1839-1876) were primitive in terms of the right to vote and be elected, they can be considered the first democratic elections during the Ottoman time. In the following period, during the First and Second Constitutional Monarchy periods, elections became widespread and multiparty democracy developed. Since 1950, multiparty democracy has been successfully implemented in Turkey.
In the last decade alone, Turkey has gone to the polls a total of eight times for presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections, and referendums. This intensive polling practice means that both the voters and the institutions organizing the elections have gained significant experience, which is an insuring factor for election security.
Judicial Management and Supervision of Elections
The fact that elections in Turkey are under the supervision and management of the judiciary provides the most effective guarantee for electoral security. Elections have been administered and supervised by judicial bodies since 1950, when the Supreme Election Council (YSK) was established, whose members are elected by the General Boards of Court of Cassation and the Council of State. The judicial administration of elections was constitutionally guaranteed by the 1961 Constitution, when the YSK became a constitutional institution, and continued with the 1982 Constitution. Article 67/2 of the Constitution stipulates that “elections and referendums shall be held on the basis of free, equal, secret, one-run, universal suffrage, open counting and casting, under judicial administration and supervision.”
Judicial guarantees are provided by the YSK, whose members are directly elected by the Court of Cassation and the Council of State from among their own members, and by the provincial and district election boards, whose members are also composed of judges. These committees are authorized to take the necessary measures to ensure that the elections take place in an orderly and fair manner.
The YSK is tasked with “carrying out and having carried out all procedures related to the orderly conduct and integrity of the elections from the beginning to the end of the elections, examining and finalizing all corruption, complaints and objections related to election matters during and after the elections.”
Another important measure is the participation of political parties in the electoral commissions to oversee the process. According to Law No. 298, the four political parties that received the highest number of votes in the last parliamentary general election and political parties that have a group in the parliament can have one representative each at the YSK. Provincial and district election boards also have political party representatives. Thus, the work of the electoral commissions is carried out under the supervision of the political parties, i.e., the parties to the competition. This not only ensures that errors and irregularities are eliminated, but also increases the reliability of the results.
The ballot counting and casting committees are composed of a chairperson and six members. The chairperson and one member are elected from among the public officials in that location, while five board members are appointed by the five political parties with the highest number of votes in the district where the polling station is located. These elections are also held under the supervision of district election boards, i.e., judges.
Law No. 298 regulates the counting and casting of votes in great detail in thirteen articles. Accordingly, the ballot committees count the votes cast at the polling station and in the presence of the public officials, and record the results in the minutes. Political party observers are also given a copy of the ballot box result reports. The merging of the ballot box result reports at the district and provincial election boards is also carried out under the supervision of political parties. The ballot box result reports are published and made available on the YSK website after the elections.
Today, for example, it is possible to access the minutes of the results of any polling station where votes were cast in the 2018 presidential elections on the YSK’s official website. Moreover, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are also following the election process upon Turkey’s invitation. For example, the 2018 elections in Turkey were monitored by 350 international observers.
No doubt, the election process in Turkey is transparent and open to public scrutiny. In the May 14 elections, the experience and institutional capacity of the Supreme Election Council alongside the efforts of the political parties to ensure election security will once again guarantee the healthy manifestation of the national will.