Will Turkey have free and fair elections?

“Serious concerns had been expressed hellip over the involvement of the president of the Republic of Turkey in the pre-electoral campaign, despite a clear constitutional provision that he remains without bias while in office.”

“The delegation recalls that all broadcasters, including the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), are required to ensure impartial and equal media coverage of the campaign hellip It regrets that the shortcomings identified by PACE in this matter in the 2014 presidential elections remain unaddressed, in particular the unequal allocation of airtime to political parties.”

No, these are not quotes from a report produced by one of Turkey’s opposition parties. Nor is PACE a “parallel” front organization set up by the Hizmet movement. In fact, PACE is the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, an organization of which Turkey is a long-standing member.

I started this column by reciting a few sentences from a PACE declaration that was published after a six-member, cross-party delegation visited Ankara last week to prepare the arrival of 30 PACE observers to monitor the elections on June 7. Despite all the diplomatic language used, it is obvious the European parliamentarians are worried about the upcoming vote. Will Turkey have free and fair elections? Or will the continuous intervention by the president, the biased reporting by state and state-controlled media, and possible vote-rigging mean that, for the first time in Turkey’s recent history, a shadow will be cast over the outcome of parliamentary elections?

For decades, election-monitoring missions had no need to come to Turkey or were so small as to have only symbolic meaning. Despite all its other democratic deficiencies, at least voting was perceived, in Turkey and abroad, as relatively free and fair. Not anymore.

Doubts set in after the local elections last year when in several cities, most notably in Ankara, there were credible reports of fraud and manipulation. Worries grew when several surveys, including official ones by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), indicated that TRT has been massively violating the principle of equality on air.

Alarm bells rang loudly after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started holding rallies across the country — broadcast for hours by TRT and private, pro-government channels — during which the former Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader used all his rhetorical talents to bash the opposition and openly ask his audiences to vote for the ruling party.

His behavior is without doubt a clear violation of the Constitution, which requires the president to cut off all ties with his party and serve impartially. What happened when opposition politicians complain about violations that threaten the fairness of the upcoming elections? Nothing. The Supreme Elections Board (YSK) refused to send a warning to the president, claiming it is not authorized to do so. The Constitutional Court, that has received several petitions from main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Atilla Kart, simply refuses to deal with the issue with any urgency. There is only one conclusion possible: apparently, the Turkish president stands above the law and can do whatever he wants, making a mockery of Turkey’s legal system. No institution or court that should be upholding the electoral laws or the Constitution is willing or able to correct the wrongdoings of the president. To this legal incapacitation, we should add the prospect that a few thousand votes could determine whether or not the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) will make it into Parliament. Everybody realizes that this is the make-or-break result of these elections, the one that will decide whether the AKP can continue with its plans for a presidential system. This situation is almost an open invitation for vote-rigging and it explains why the European parliamentarians and many in Turkey are increasingly worried that things may get out of control in the run-up to June 7, and on the day itself when votes will be counted and results gathered.

One can only hope that these few European observers are able to combine their efforts with those of the thousands of Turkish volunteers that will be in place on June 7, trying to forestall the feared manipulation of the election results. It is the only way to prevent Turkey from gradually moving into the category of dubious countries where the rule of law has been undermined and election results can’t be trusted.