For the first time, expatriates around the world can vote in a Turkish national election. The vast majority of their votes will be wasted.
This morning, Turkish expatriates living in 20 territories around the world will begin voting for the president of their home country. By the end of this weekend, voters in a further 34 countries will have joined them. More than 2.5 million people are eligible to take part, making expats the Turkey’s largest voting district after Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
To those who previously voted at home, it will be a familiar experience: voters will be handed a ballot paper with the photographs of three candidates and a liberally-inked seal to stamp “EVET” (Yes) beneath one of them.
Planning has been disorderly, advice to voters conflicted and the expense to taxpayers phenomenal.
It might also be reminiscent of some of the most excruciating examples of Turkish bureaucracy: conflicting directions, irritable officials and long queues.
Overseas voting has promised for many years. Since the law originally passed in 1995, only passport holders who crossed a Turkish border in the fortnight before an election were allowed to vote at booths that were set up beyond passport control.
This summer’s presidential poll is the first time the franchise has been extended to expats in their country of residence. It is considered by Turkish electoral authorities and political parties alike as a test run ahead of next year’s parliamentary election when, again, expats will have the right to vote.
But the omens for next year are not good. Planning for this year’s overseas election has been disorderly, advice to voters conflicted and the expense to taxpayers phenomenal.
HOW TO HERD THE CATS?
Planning this year’s election must have been a vast undertaking. 54 countries are hosting an election this weekend, from tiny Kosovo with its 807 voters to Germany, where there are 1.4 million on the books.
Voting in the smaller countries is being held at the local Turkish Embassy. Voting by post or online is not an option, so embassy staff in the larger countries have hired out sports arenas and exhibition halls dotted around their territory to process the thousands who could potentially turn out to vote.
In some countries, the spread of voting venues is pretty good, allowing for minimal travelling time. Turks in France, for example, can vote at venues ranging from Paris and Strasbourg to Lyon and Marseille.
But voters in Britain get a rather raw deal with their single polling station in London: anyone living in Scotland or Northern Ireland will need at least a day, probably more, to travel down. And in vast Australia, the options are Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. God help anyone who lives on the west coast.
Of course, no-one can expect a polling station at the end of their street, but there were other options. Postal voting was quickly discounted because some countries have a more reliable service than others. But internet voting was seriously considered by the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) before it was vetoed by the two main opposition parties because they believed it would not be secure enough. I understand both parties have now privately conceded this was a mistake.
CONFLICTING ADVICE, GERMAN DIKTAT
Planning ahead of this year’s election may have been poor, but the YSK compounded the problem by failing to give clear instructions on how to vote.
The YSK set up an overseas electoral register to complement the lists of voters held by each local muhtar office in Turkey. It also sensibly provided a simple form on its website that would allow expats to check whether they were enrolled on the register by entering their national identity number. Anyone not enrolled would have to apply to their local embassy or consulate.
This is relatively clear. Less clear was the YSK’s decision to introduce an appointment system, meaning that Dutch voters – for example – had to book themselves a single morning or afternoon timeslot between Thursday 31st July and Sunday 3 August. If you turn up outside your chosen time, you will be turned away.
But astonishingly if you do not book a time at all the system will choose one for you. And if you turn up outside that time, you will again be turned away.
The timeslot system is mandatory in all countries hosting more than a single day of voting. Pity the poor fool who makes the seven hour drive from San Francisco to their nearest polling station in Los Angeles, only to be told they actually should have voted yesterday.
The appointment system, unsurprisingly, hasn’t caught on: barely 7 percent of all voters have bothered to book themselves a timeslot. So why introduce it at all?
I’m told authorities in Germany were irked by the idea of long queues of Turkish people forming for days on end outside polling stations around the country. They demanded a vote-by-appointment system and threatened to withdraw permission to hold future Turkish elections in Germany.
Germany is home to the single largest number of Turkish expatriates – just about half the number in the world – and disenfranchising them would be impossible. But German motives aside, the YSK’s decision to force an appointments system on every country and not Germany alone is baffling.
According to Turkish electoral law, all votes must be counted and verified under the supervision of a judge. For domestic votes, this means that after voting concludes the ballot box is immediately opened at the polling station and counted in front of anyone who cares to witness the process. The votes are then taken to the nearest district election centre, where a judge presides.
The YSK decided early on that flying out a judge to every overseas election centre was impractical. That is why it arranged for expatriate voting to take place a week before Turkey and to fly the ballot boxes back to Istanbul to be counted in the presence of a judge on 10 August. There will be no counting whatsoever at overseas polling stations.
A fleet of six cargo planes has been hired to hop and skip across the world next week to collect all the boxes. On board will be YSK officials, representatives from the three main political parties (but curiously, I understand, no-one from the HDP) and of course the aircraft crew.
But source tells me the cost of hiring these six planes is “far higher” than putting up 54 judges in hotels across the world to oversee vote counting on election day.
A TERRIBLE TRIAL
No-one really knows how many Turkish expatriates will turn out this weekend or who they will vote for. All of Turkey’s main political parties have conceded this election is an experiment ahead of next year’s general election and the YSK may change things before then.
But apart from the novelty of casting a Turkish vote overseas, you have to wonder why expats should bother to vote at all.
There are no plans in Turkey to introduce French-style overseas constituencies ahead of next year’s parliament election, depriving overseas voters of parliamentary representation. And candidates for Turkish president were banned from campaigning overseas (although Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Selahattin Demirtaş quite casually flouted this).
The Turkish presidency is even more distant to expatriates than it is to the average domestic voter; unless you feel particularly strongly about Mr Erdoğan’s future job prospects, what motive do you have to travel hours or days to cast a measly vote?
This weekend is an experiment, yes, but one that does not inspire for the future. This weekend the best part of 2.5 million votes can go to waste.