This article first appeared in The Times.
A burning bright fire of ballot papers slowly smouldering into a pile of ash on a lino floor at the corner of a primary school classroom is not my usual election day experience but this what I saw last Sunday in Turkey, where I was an international election scrutineer nominated by the UK government.
This trip was no mere fact-finding mission. The exercise was to check all was orderly in the electoral process as part of a huge international effort. After two days’ extensive briefing on election law, media and political system, together with 400 other MPs from every corner of the globe, I was paired with a bespectacled German senator from Hanover and deployed to the Turkish region of Diyarbakir (population: two million) with a local driver and translator.
Armed with a checklist to identify irregularities in each location, in our sample of 12 polling stations over the course of the day nothing jumped out to me as satisfying the criteria to be fraudulent. But I was reminded of the teaching observations I faced in a former life. If you can fake it while the assessor is in the room you’re home and dry. And questionnaires are a blunt tool, it’s Yes or No with no room for nuance or maybe. Did I see intimidation? No. But would I recognise it if there was. Possibly not.
I was left with many questions on many levels. The cobbling together of a joint slate of six parties spanning religious/secular/left/right who hate each other but hate Erdogan even more might prove a tricky balancing act, and the incumbent could always do a Trump and refuse to relinquish power, but those issues are left at the door of independent observation.
I have performed election observation for the US midterms. It seemed odd that a mature western democracy might need oversight, although Capitol Hill reminds us that “funny business” can and does occur. On the ground in Turkey it didn’t feel the translation was simultaneous, more simplification and almost “explaining away” occurrences like the burning ballots. It was the discovery of two cases of double voting that led to removals at random of two envelopes with the presidential and MP slips and their subsequent setting alight. I found that bizarre but no one else batted an eyelid.
Some issues are the reverse. Voters had to show ID in order to be issued with ballot papers. This has been controversial in Blighty but completely routine in Turkey.
I plumped for Diyarbakir to see some real life rather than engage in election tourism. The scrawny kids playing with twigs in the outlying villages, marvelling at our exotic presence, reminded me of my ancestral home in Bangladesh. We saw cows, goats and medieval-looking ploughs.
I had a mere snapshot, but at least Turkey admits international observers. When I last looked Bangladesh didn’t.
I did spot one of the very long ballot papers where presidential candidates were pictured and parliamentary choices pictured with party logos going in the wrong pile but it was swiftly corrected and I’d attribute that more to human error after a long day’s shift with no breaks and changeovers than anything more sinister. As the votes piled up it became clear the opposition presidential candidate romped home 70-30, as did the Green-left for parliament, as is customary in Diyarbakir.
Accordingly many in Diyarbakir could not believe the overall result. We drove past the courthouse where all local ballot boxes were gathered and it looked like an argy-bargy was about to break out with a crowd gathering. We made it out quick, though I’d been game for hanging about
Whether the next 48 hours are an opportunity for a long-serving leader to get out with grace and clear his desk in the face of inevitable defeat (as the word on the street seemed to be where I am) or for a dictator to engineer the next bit and triumph again (as everyone in the UK seems to think) will become clear when the run-off ends.
* 401 MP observers from 40 countries were deployed by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, along with a 39-member delegation from the Council of Europe.
Opening was observed in 132 polling stations and voting was observed in 999 polling stations across the country. Counting was observed in 120 polling stations.
Rupa Huq is Labour MP for Ealing Central & Acton