Turkey’s high-stakes mayoral races are expected to be close. Volunteer monitors will be key

Istanbul Mayor and Republican People's Party, or CHP, candidate for Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu addresses supporters during a campaign rally, in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, March 21, 2024. With local elections across Turkey days away, legal experts are coaching thousands of volunteer election monitors on the rules they'll need to watch for fraud and ensure a fair vote. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Istanbul Mayor and Republican People’s Party, or CHP, candidate for Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu addresses supporters during a campaign rally, in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, March 21, 2024. With local elections across Turkey days away, legal experts are coaching thousands of volunteer election monitors on the rules they’ll need to watch for fraud and ensure a fair vote. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — With local elections across Turkey days away, legal experts are coaching thousands of volunteer election monitors on the rules they’ll need to watch for fraud and ensure a fair vote.

The vote across Turkey’s 81 provinces Sunday will determine who controls localities from major municipalities to tiny districts and villages.

With high-stakes mayoral races in Istanbul and other major cities expected to be tight, observers fear that some parties may attempt to tamper with the results, and that losers could sow doubt in the outcome with allegations of fraud. Unpaid volunteer monitors could be pivotal to the outcome.

In 2019, President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party used claims of irregularities to force a do-over of an election in Istanbul after opposition candidate Ekren Imamoglu won the mayor’s office.

Independent election monitors said at the time that there was no evidence of fraud on a large enough scale to affect election results, and races for district mayors, municipal assemblies, and neighborhood administrators that were mostly won by the party were not challenged. Imamoglu, who had clinched victory by a slim margin, won the repeat election with a larger margin.

Now, Erdogan, 70, is seeking to win back large cities like Istanbul and the capital Ankara, where his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, lost to the opposition in 2019.

The most closely watched race is in Istanbul, a city of 16 million, where Imamoglu is tied in a neck-and-neck battle with the AKP’s Murat Kurum. As leader of a city that accounts for almost a fifth of the country’s population, Imamoglu is seen as a likely presidential challenger. Erdogan himself began his political career as mayor of Istanbul.

Holding on to the key cities is important for Imamoglu’s pro-secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP. A six-party opposition alliance it once led disintegrated after losing a presidential challenge to Erdogan in last year’s elections. That defeat came despite a deep cost-of-living crisis and accusations that the government had mismanaged the response to a devastating earthquake.

A strong showing for Erdogan would motivate him to push for a new constitution that would reflect his conservative views and allow him to rule beyond the end of his current term in 2028, analysts say.

Volunteer election monitors play a vital role in making sure that the high-stakes election comes off fairly.

“Counting every single vote is going to be crucial,” said Berk Esen, an associate professor at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.

“There will be a lot of challenges for the vote counting process, especially in AKP strongholds of Istanbul. If the CHP doesn’t have the sufficient number of volunteers, you might actually see a lot of disturbances,” he said.

Most volunteers are recruited by independent groups like Oy ve Otesi, or Vote and Beyond, which has been monitoring elections for the past 10 years. While each volunteer is assigned to represent a single party’s interests, they’re often not party members.

Retired teacher Tufan Caliskan, 62, who attended a training session on March 23 said she volunteered in order to “ensure a fairer and more secure election.”

“I want to contribute to the democratic process,” she said.

Oy ve Otesi is aiming to deploy 50,000 monitors to oversee the vote in 49 provinces, with a particular focus on Istanbul. Lawyers will also be on hand to contest possible irregularities.

Mehmet Bilgic, a 35-year-old mining engineer who heads the non-partisan group, said the organization has not recruited as many volunteers as it had hoped for.

“In the last elections, we were able to place two volunteers at every ballot box,” Bilgic said. “We don’t have that manpower in these elections.”

“In the last elections, people had hope for change,” he added. “But many became disillusioned about being able to change things.”

Election monitoring groups like Oy ve Otesi have emerged amid a decline in public trust in the election system, as Erdogan, in power for the past two decades, has tightened his hold over the judiciary and other institutions, critics say.

In local elections in 2014, allegations of attempted ballot-rigging and power outages at polling stations in Ankara, including one that the government blamed on a cat entering a electricity generating system, led to small-scale protests. It was never proven that any irregularities occurred.

In 2017, Turkey’s electoral commission allowed ballot papers without the required official stamps to be counted in a referendum that expanded the powers of the president, leading to accusations of fraud.

Bilgic says his group, which will be conducting an independent ballot count as well monitoring for possible fraud, has helped prevent many irregularities in the past but has not detected anything at a scale that would affect the outcome of the polls.

At a cultural center in Ankara, trainer Dorukcan Ozkose explained to some 35 volunteers the ins and outs of the local election process, what the monitors should watch out for and what to do if they spot any discrepancies.

“The voter’s will must enter the ballot box fairly and be reflected fairly,” he told the group.

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