Turkish Armenians concerned over possible election rigging
For the first time in a while, the people of Turkey are excited about the upcoming June 24th general and presidential elections. Party and presidential candidates of all stripes have held large rallies nation-wide. And on top of this, co-leader and presidential hopeful Selahattin Demirtaş for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) recently addressed the public from jail for the first time, making a speech via a phone call to his wife. Demirtaş has been imprisoned on alleged terrorism charges since November 2016.
The people of Turkey have a lot riding on these elections. In a surprise move in April, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for early general and presidential elections to be held June 24, nearly a year and a half before scheduled elections. His announcement came a year after constitutional amendments were put to a vote to change Turkey's political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. Whoever wins the June 24 presidential elections will be able to benefit from enhanced executive powers bestowed in the constitutional referendum.
But the elections also carry significance for one segment of Turkey's minorities: Armenians. Similar to the general elections in 2015, three parties in this election campaign have nominated Armenian candidates for parliament. Markar Esayan, who was a member of parliament representing Istanbul in the last period for the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP), is running for deputy again. Before becoming a deputy in the 2015 elections, Esayan was known in the journalism community as writing for Armenian daily Agos and Taraf daily, a liberal newspaper. But since 2013, Esayan has been writing for the pro-government Yeni Şafak.
Another Armenian candidate for the Turkish parliament is Garo Paylan who is running on the HDP ticket in Diyarbakir. Elmas Giragos is the third Armenian candidate for MP and is running to represent Istanbul for the newly founded, center-right Good Party.
We spoke with several people to get a feel for what the Armenian community in Istanbul thinks of the upcoming election.
We first talked to Sevan Değirmenciyan, an Armenian language teacher at the Hrank Dink Foundation. Before that, he taught Armenian at the Pangaltı Mıhitaryan High School after completing his education in Armenian Language and Literature at Yerevan State University. Değirmenciyan, who is known as an outspoken critic in Istanbul's Armenian community, is not too hopeful about the quickly approaching elections: "As of today, the worry I have been nursing towards the Turkey we will wake up to on June 25 is growing." Değirmenciyan, who thinks that the AK Party is growing tired, said, "even the propaganda they present conveys a messy picture."
Değirmenciyan also emphasizes that the two elections – general and presidential – must be handled separately and refers to the 2015 general elections in which the results of the June election that year were disregarded, and the country went to the polls that following November: "We first need to get rid of the false notion that there is one election and focus on two separate elections. I predict that the parliamentary and presidential elections will have different consequences. Perhaps the presidential system, which was introduced as a problem-free and an urgent solution, will experience a blockage in its first elections and will have more serious consequences. In that case, I cannot stop thinking about whether or not we will have another June 7  disaster."
Değirmenciyan thinks that the AK Party, which has been in power for 16 years, will not "easily abandon their power even though the party is worn out." He continued by saying, "I don't think they will recognize their own definition of democracy."
On the topic of the promises made so far during the election campaign, Değirmenciyan states that the message is to "return a worn-out country to its 'old, happy' days." He continues by saying, "Of course, this isn't enough on its own. Promises should not be to return the country to its default settings. Some major issues that come to mind include democracy, pluralism, environmentalism, consumption of natural resources, reconstruction of what's been destroyed, revitalization of the European Union goal, restoration of justice, creation of a separation of powers, a strengthening of local governments, placing importance on women's place in society and downplaying men's roles, placing increasing importance on art and artists and historical works, emphasizing institutionalization over ignorance right away, focusing on the importance of quality not quantity, providing education in the mother tongue spoken by the people of Turkey, foundations, selecting the patriarchate, legal entities, and other similar problems."
Perhaps the most unexpected Armenian-origin candidate is Elmas Giragos, who is running on the center-right Good party ticket in Istanbul. Giragos previously played an active role in MHP's district organizations. In an interview he gave to Armenian daily Agos, Giragos said, "I go to church, I know my god, and I'm an MHP supporter." According to Değirmenciyan, who says it's not clear as to whether or not Giragos will be elected, commented, "Of course, it's nice to see parliamentary candidates from different segments of Turkey’s people. Representation of the lesser-heard factions is critical. If I'm not mistaken, there are Armenian parliamentary candidates for the HDP, AKP, and Good Party."
Değiremenciyan said that even though Selina Doğan performed well in her latest stint as member of parliament said this when she didn't appear on this year's ticket: "Of course this is very upsetting for a party [CHP] that aspires to government... perhaps she was inundated with the discomfort felt by critics within the party regarding an Armenian representative."
When asked about the AK Party's Armenian deputy candidate Markar Esayan, he said, "If an Armenian is playing for a football team you don't support, then your heart might go to him whether you want it to or not... But when the issue here is democracy and human rights, people can't react with the same instinct. Let the party – who turned the justice system upside down, who filled jails with journalists, who silenced the free press, who buried their heads in the sand when the subject turned to human rights, who excluded from the elections the patriarchate, the leader of the community of the 70,000 Armenians remaining in this country – let this party in power put up 10 candidates for MP if they want to. What would it cost them? Our course our hearts will be on the side of democracy and freedom..."
He emphasised that presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas was in jail while his trial was pending and was not able to campaign as freely as the other presidential candidates: "Even at this stage, most party and presidential candidates cannot conduct election work on the same terms as the others. The president and the incumbent party are abusing the state apparatus and have limited the ability of the Supreme Election Council to punish them for their last changes to the rules around elections creating unequal conditions for other candidates and the press.
Değirmenciyan is also worried about the security of the ballot boxes, "I think that the case of unstamped ballot papers during [last year's] constitutional referendum or the repeat vote on November 1 after the June 7  elections after the results were disqualified are enough to overshadow the results of the upcoming elections. There's no reason to think that the elections will be far even before [considering] the security of the ballot box. What could happen on election day? Could the second round [of voting] be delayed or canceled as a result of the possible political war in the Qandil operation that's being talked about today? I think we'll all find out together..."
Hraç Arslanyan, a long-time jeweler in the Grand Bazaar, said the promises of the current government and president "needed to have been done in its 16 years," and added, "Some things should have been done since the young republic was established - for example, restoring social peace and morale."
Arslanyan, who said that executive powers were already strong, commented, "The opposition, particularly the press, seem to have their hands tied." The biggest concern that Arslanyan, who is a member of the Istanbul Jewelry Chamber Board of Directors, has is the transfer of ballot boxes and the validation of unstamped envelopes, which was a contentious issue in last year's constitutional referendum. In talking about a fair election, Arslanyan referenced the countrywide power outage that occurred while votes were being tallied during the April 2014 local elections. Officials blamed the power outage on a cat tripping a transformer. Arslanyan continued by saying, "Blaming the transformer cat is now out of fashion, but we are in a creative country, yet hopefully, we will have fair elections."
Narod Avci, who is completing his master's degree in history at Istanbul Bilgi University, highlighted the significance of pro-Kurdish HDP reaching the required 10% threshold to enter parliament. He said, "I believe that many things will change depending on the threshold situation - if they cannot reach the threshold, then 9-12% of the group's representation will go [to someone else]. If they can reach the threshold, then it'll be possible to represent more people in the parliament (not just HDP voters)." Avci is of the opinion that presidential candidates Erdoğan and Muharrem Ince (CHP) will face off in the presidential race. Recalling the controversial results of the April 2017 referendum, he also expressed his doubts about the fairness of the upcoming polls and that something similar might happen.
Avci also discussed that the turns of phrase used by the parties were just as important as their election promises. He said, "The promises are of course crucial, but what is more important to me is the language that politicians use when making these promises. But promises are not enough, because we have way too many issues that need to be improved. There are so many problems from the environment to women's rights, from the rights of LGBT individuals to the murder of workers that if there is a promise to fix these problems, then the previous work done by the party determines the sincerity of the promises for me."
Avci goes on to emphasize the significance of the Armenian deputy candidates of the three parties but adds that parties should also nominate people from other minorities, not only Armenians. He says, "The right to be represented is of course very important, and if the deputies are addressing and working on problems the people cannot take to parliament, then the nomination of many candidates from various parties is very meaningful. I think it's very valuable for Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Assyrians, and Chaldeans to take part in parliament and for problems of the minorities who are not Muslim to be talked about both in parliament and within the parties.
Sevan Ataoğlu, an editor known in Turkey's Armenian community, made his own predictions about the upcoming polls, particularly about the People's Alliance, which is a coalition formed between the AKP and MHP: "If there is no political or economic manipulation in the 15 days before the election, I think that the presidential election will go to a second round of voting, the HDP will pass the threshold, and the People's Alliance will crumble." Ataoğlu, who expressed his views on Demirtaş, said that he thinks the hinderance in allowing the presidential candidate to carry out work related to the election campaign is a violation of rights. He added, "based on what I've seen from previous elections, I don't think the upcoming polls will be fair."