Ballot Box Bum 2023
My day as a voluntary election observer in Ankara
It’s been a bruising first round for Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign. I’ll have analysis on that soon.
For now, I share with you my notes from election day, when I volunteered as a ballot box observer for the main opposition’s alliance. I’ve written it up in the style of my election day observation post from November 2015. I hope it gives you a sense of how election day unfolds in this country.
Kültürkampf is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Election day in Ankara, 14 May, 2023
I’m up. I take a shower, make coffee, get ready.
I’m in my car. There’s no traffic at all. I listen to pro-government A Haber, as usual. Below are some of the stories that came on:
The “FETÖ plot” to sideline Muharrem İnce has been revealed. This is a “shadow falling over the election” [seçime düşen bir gölge bu]
The Supreme Electoral Council has a system called “Cockpit” that’s going to sort data and relay it in real-time.
The southeastern province of Muş has been “cleansed” of terrorists — a special report from the village of Kayalısu.
The Small and Medium Enterprises Development Organization (KOSGEB) is doubling its support to businesses in the earthquake region.
Parked my car right next to the school where the vote is to take place.
Voting starts at 8:00 sharp, and there are two cops at the door barring people from entering. I text the WhatsApp group we are using to organize volunteers from the Millet Coalition. The person responsible for the school comes out to meet me. He looks like he’s in his late 20s, early 30s, and is wearing a t-shirt and backpack. He’s very polite, addressing me in the formal “Selim bey” and asking me how my drive went.
He hands me a card certifying that I’m a volunteer. I can now enter the building. I’m stationed, along with another volunteer, on the first floor, which has six classrooms.
Every classroom has a ballot box, and every ballot box has a committee made up of 4-6 people. The head of the committee is usually a teacher, and the others are from the major political parties. They have strict instructions on what to do at each stage of the voting process.
Volunteering at these things is partly a game of figuring out people’s political affiliations. It’s illegal to wear any party symbols at voting stations, but well-organized building groups will wear some kind of pre-arranged replacement identifier. This might be a particular kind of Turkish flag pin or an arm band. Our group doesn’t have such an identifier, but there are a lot of people in this building wearing green bands around their necks, the kinds of things they hand out at conferences to wear a name tags - except there is no name tag attached to them.
An old, short man wearing a tan suit is pacing about my floor, as well as a young woman wearing a headscarf and a “pardisü” top coat. Both are wearing the green band, which makes me think that it’s the AK Party’s sign, but this neighborhood is supposed to have a big MHP presence, so I’m not entirely sure yet. We all greet each other.
I’m introduced to our lawyer. She’s a woman with short black hair. She’s also wearing a t-shirt, and there are swirly, eastern-looking tattoos visible on her arms, hands, and neck. The lawyers always carry papers around, and she’s carrying hers in a backpack.
She’s looking at every classroom for 30 seconds or so, then moving on. She must have a mental checklist of sorts.
I also meet my colleague who’s with me covering this floor. He’s a software developer, probably in his early-to-mid 20s. It’s his first time observing elections, and he’s a bit nervous.
I tell him I’ve done it many times before, that it’s not hard. The most important thing an observer does is to be there for the final count, watch as the ballot box committees write up the document with the official count, take a photo of it, and put it into the school’s Whatsapp group. That’s it. The school rep then collects those at the end of the day and uploads them onto the main system through a browser-based, rickety system.
(The AK Party, I’m later told, has its own app for this purpose and is much faster in uploading these things.)
Until 5pm, when the count starts, we just hang out around the classrooms and observe the vote. There are usually minor problems, but they resolve themselves. If they get bigger, we call in the lawyers.
Voting has started now. Old people always come first, but they’re usually registered for classrooms on the first floor. (Schools don’t have elevators and old people can’t climb stairs). I see a young man in crocks and wearing baggy basketball shorts. He mutters “kolay gelsin” as he walks past me and the software developer.
People are assigned to specific classrooms with numbers. Two middle-aged women wearing traditional clothing ask me where their classroom is, handing me their voter registration slips. I direct them to the second floor.
There’s another person from our group, who’s touring the whole building, checking in on everyone. She’s a petite woman, probably well into her 40s. She has very big, well-styled hair though. She must have gotten it done for today. The media often calls election day “demokrasi bayramı,” and there is something to that. People get dressed up the way one might on a holiday.
There’s a young man and someone who appears to be his mother walking past me. He’s telling her “how many times do I have to tell you, why wouldn’t you vote for iyi party?” [sana kaç kere diyom, iyi partiye versen nolacak?]
Voting has started, but one of the rooms isn’t ready yet. They’re still stamping the back of the ballots with the seal of the Supreme Electoral Council.
When I was at the entrance, with the cops, I saw a tiny kitten (see first photo above). The kitten is now on our floor, which seems dangerous. More people are starting to come in, and some are in a hurry. I take a few steps towards the kitten, but then a woman picks it up and leave with it, saving it from the stampede of the demos.
Among the green bands is a short, stocky young woman wearing black pants and a striped shirt. She has also done very intense things to her hair - there’s blond strands in it, comes down straight and is curves up in the ends (as a bald man, I am at once ignorant and fascinated with people’s hair).
Anyways, striped shirt is extremely energetic. She has a clipboard, first-names most people as she speeds past them. She huddles with the green bands on our floor, scribbles a few things on her board, cracks a few jokes, then speeds away.
The green-band young woman with the black headscarf is walking past me, observing the classrooms. I notice she’s silently reciting a prayer.
It’s clear to me by now that the green bands are not MHP. They’re far too diverse, well-organized, and numerous to be anything but AK Party.
The school’s principle is checking out the classrooms. He’s an old man with short white hair, wearing a baggy brown suit. He also has files in his hands and talks to the teachers and the green bands from time to time.
I introduce myself and the software developer.
There’s yelling upstairs. The petite nice hair lady tells me it’s about someone who didn’t want to take off their smartwatch as he went into the voting booth. “You leave your phone on the table, why not a smartwatch?” she says, “that’s a computer too.”
I ask the software developer if “we should have some tea.” By this I mean that I’d like to go buy some tea from a stand downstairs (there’s always someone brewing tea at voting stations), and whether he’d like some, but he says he’ll go get us some. He’s already up and leaving before I can protest, and he shouts back that he’s going to take a smoking break too.
He’s back soon and we have tea.
Our lawyer is on our floor and she’s on the phone. I hear the word “şikayet” (a formal complaint) a lot.
I’m sitting on one of the chairs, and one of the green band guys on our floor comes and sits next to me. He’s a man in his 30s with hollow cheeks, smokers’ teeth and coal-black eyes.
We exchange greetings and names and shake hands. He asks if I’m from the “Millet” coalition and I say I am, and I ask if he’s from the “Cumhur” coalition, and he says he is. Then he says “hayırlısı olsun” (literally, “may whatever is most auspicious happen”) and I say “amin” and that’s that.
Striped shirt woman speedwalks in with a big smile on her face, greets a cop who’s standing by [nassınız komserim?]. There are a bunch of people huddling around her. She orders tea for everyone. I notice she’s wearing freshly shined loafers and a very big iPhone.
There’s yelling coming from one of the classrooms. People immediately crowd in front of it, including striped shirt.
It’s a short, middle-aged woman yelling at one of the people staffing the ballot box. She is wearing a green headscarf and an overcoat. She’s absolutely furious. Her eyes are bulging as she’s explaining to the AK Party observers what happened. I tell the Software Developer to get our lawyer while I go figure out what’s happening.
Apparently, she had stamped her ballot, put it in the envelope, and just as she was walking towards the box, someone staffing the boxes said that they could take the envelope and slit it in the box for her. This is against the procedure, so it makes her think that there might be funny business going on.
A lawyer shows up, but not ours. She’s a young woman wearing a pretty expensive-looking white-beige headscarf-overcoat combo and tasteful makeup. She is also wearing a Turkish flag pin, which makes me think she might be responsible for multiple schools. She writes up the complaint.
Our lawyer shows up. I tell her what’s going on. She sort of looks around, decides there’s nothing for her to do and leaves.
Afterward, the AK Party lawyer, the woman who made the complaint, as well as several other green-band-wearing AK Party volunteers people are standing in the hallway. There’s another man there who’s also a lawyer. (They have two in this school!) I join them, just to figure out what’s happening. The woman vents a bit. “Why would they want to touch my envelope? What if they have some kind of chemical on their hands? Look at me. People can tell who you vote for. People can always sense it. Am I wrong?”
I tell her she’s right to bring it up, and that it’s a violation of the regulations. Everyone should get to slip their envelope into their ballot box themselves.
When they find out that I’m an opposition observer, they start talking to me a little differently, saying that the person in question was probably “one of you” and that I should do something about it. They’re still polite though.
The two lawyers say that my observer card is invalid because it’s not from a party but from a presidential candidate. “You can’t actually be here, it’s illegal” one of them says, but they aren’t quite ready to kick me out either. I tell them I volunteered through the proper channels and that I’m sure of my status.
They leave, and I feel a bit uneasy now. My legitimacy has been undermined.
I go down to the ground floor, and it’s absolutely packed.
I spot our lawyer and tell her what the AK Party people said about us being illegal. She tells me that’s false. “Why else would the police let you in the building before voting starts?” she says. It makes sense. She tells me to call her if there’s any trouble.
There’s a volunteer from the anti-immigrant Zafer Party. He’s a short, stout man, probably in his 30s. He’s wearing glasses, has a short beard, and long frizzy hair that’s combed back. He looks a bit like a mad scientist.
I hear he was the first one first ones to show up in the morning and introduced himself to everyone. I despise the party, but it’s hard to dislike this guy. He’s always cool and collected and asks everyone if they need anything.
He’s on my floor now, with a small cardboard box with several paper tea cups in it. He offers me one and I take it.
The AK Party volunteers are huddling around a classroom. There’s some irregularity they’re trying to revolve. Striped shirt is there again.
There’s a tall, broad-shouldered guy, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, stubble beard and messy hair, wearing a white button-down shirt, swinging his arms wide as he walking. There are a couple of younger guys around him too. He exchanges words with the woman in the striped shirt. He’s very bossy. I’ll call him “the Alpha.”
The software developer and I are hanging out right next to one of the classrooms. There’s a guy next to us, probably in his 20s, who appears to be mentally disabled. He looks at me, I look back, he says “we’re going to the village after this! You?” I say I’ll go home, here in Ankara. He laughs. He asks the software developer too, and gets the same response. He laughs again.
He then starts talking to other people in line. He knows some of their names, and they’re all very kind to him. The AK Party volunteer with coal-black eyes greets him. I say “this guy’s popular. He knows everybody in line!”
“Oh yeah, this guy” he says [tabi ya, bu var ya bu”] winking at him.
I walk to my car just to stretch my legs a bit and get out of the school. I see kids playing hide and seek in the courtyard around the back.
It’s very intense around these hours. Most of the crowd looks pretty conservative.
The software developer leaves to vote in his own neighborhood and have lunch.
There’s more families now with young kids. Some little kid is asking everyone’s names while waiting in line.
One of the classrooms is making a mistake, and it’s annoying me. See, every classroom has two voting booths and the staff is only supposed to let two people into the classroom at a time. A comes in, signs their name, leaves their phone, get the ballots, goes into the booth, stamp their ballots, put them into the envelope, slips the envelope into the ballot box, get their phone back, then leaves. So once you’re in the classroom, you you’re not supposed to be waiting around. You’re supposed to vote and leave.
These guys are letting multiple people come in, so you have a line inside the classroom, with people waiting in front of the booths, ballot papers in hand. There’s multiple phones lined up on the table. It’s a mess.
Though my status is legal, I’m not supposed to enter the classrooms all that much during the voting itself. The observers from political parties have more solid legal status, and one of them - a young woman from a leftist party - is walking by. I explain to her what’s happening. She goes into the room, observes the situation a bit. One of the AK Party observers is there too. They’re both observing the situation, but neither is doing anything about it. I ask the leftist party’s observer and she says things are OK, it’s not compromising the vote.
I’m a bit annoyed at this point and just approach the ballot box representative myself, tell him that he’s performing the procedure wrong (and that everyone else on the floor is doing it right). He agrees to fix it. I check back in a few times afterwards, and it’s fixed.
I go down to the ground floor, and find another classroom making the same mistake. I think it’s because the ballot papers this year are extra long, people are having trouble folding them up and putting them into the envelopes, so the whole process is taking longer. It also stresses people out.
Climbing up the stairs, I hear shouting.
I get closer, and someone’s shouting “Apo’s dogs!” over and over again. It refers to Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the PKK who’s been in prison since 1999. “They say Tayyip’s dogs but they don’t know they’re Apo’s dogs all along” shouts a very young man - probably in his teens or early 20s - wearing a white t-shirt. I’ve seen this guy walk with the green band group, but he’s not wearing a band himself. (The Alpha isn’t either. I think some of the young men who are in the AK Party group don’t wear it, probably because it ruins their outfit).
I go upstairs, and it’s still a bit of a scuffle. The cops are pulling apart 2-3 young men who are still shouting at each other. I’m told that one of the opposition observers called AK Party observers “Tayyip’s dogs,” which immediately escalated.
I doubt it’s true. I met the guy being accused of it, and I don’t think he’d say something as combustible as that here. Also, if he actually had, the cops probably wouldn’t let him stay. And they do.
A friend of mine arrives with provisions. We sit in the courtyard briefly and munch on some cookies. We then walk the hall together for a while, chat, and help people get to their assigned ballot boxes.
The software developer is back now. He says people in his (opposition-heavy) neighborhood were exuberant about an opposition win, and that it’s a lot different from what we have here. We talk about how anxious people are here.
I leave the floor to the software developer, and my friend and I go have a proper lunch at a nearby shopping mall.
We talk about the politics of the 1990s, before the AK Party. We wonder what things would be like if the opposition actually wins.
My friend drops me off at the school.
It’s calm now. The lines in front of the classrooms are short. People look tired. A lot of them are smoking on the steps outside the school.
I join a group of people from our organization, sitting on the steps in the front yard, smoking and looking at their phones. They’re upset. I ask why, and our lawyer, who’s in the group, says “they say Tayyip is preparing to give his balcony speech. They’re prepping it in front of their HQ.”
A young woman, probably in her 20s, says “please God don’t let it be another five years” [“nolur Allam bi beş sene daha olmasın”]. “It’s be one way if I knew they’d leave” says a guy about the same age, “but he wouldn’t go.”
Then one of the young people says something very offensive about AK Party voters, and our building representative, who has just joined, gets anxious. “Watch it brother” [aman abi] he says, and looks around to see if anyone might have heard. “Sorry, I can’t shut my mouth” says the guy.
It’s just very bad form to say very political things around polling stations.
The AK Party’s observers are all gathered around the bust of Atatürk in front of the school. The Alpha is in the middle, pointing at sheets of paper, talking and pointing at people. They look like a sports team right before a game.
Our building rep is next to me, smoking. We’re both looking at the AK Party people, and I bet think we’re thinking the same thing: what could they possibly be talking about? Why don’t we have anything to talk about?
The ballot stations are closed. The ballot box committees are now supposed to be counting the closed envelopes, comparing the number with their records, then start opening them and counting the votes. There’s usually small discrepancies here and there, but there’s procedures for resolving them.
I’m in one of the classrooms to see how things are going. As I take a step out into the hallway, I hear shouting, turn, and see a man running towards me, carrying a cardboard box on fire.
I sigh, step back into the doorway to let him run past me. As he’s passing, he’s shouting “where’s the bathroom” and I shout “first one on the right.”
He runs in.
This sometimes happens. When, for whatever reason, there are more envelopes than there are records of ballots cast, the ballot box committee has to burn the amount of surplus envelopes at random. I guess they decided to burn one in a cardboard box and had trouble controlling the flames.
I go to the classroom where it happened. The Alpha is there too. We’re asking what happened, and the committee explains it to us. The Alpha says “what a mess. That’s a citizen’s vote.”
I ask the Software Developer to check with the lawyer to see if we need a formal record. I’m not sure we do.
That room that screwed up the line before? They’ve screwed up again. They started opening the envelopes before counting them. I call our lawyer, the AK Party calls theirs, they all arrive at the same time, go in and start asking questions and writing things down.
I don’t follow the whole thing, but this room ends up taking a long time. The lawyers are clearly very upset.
The Zafer Party observer hails me over to one of the classrooms, saying that the count there doesn’t have an opposition observer.
Ideally, every ballot box has a few observers who conduct the count together. We non-AK Party observers are checking in with each other to see if every box is covered. This one technically is, but the opposition observer is an old man and can’t see the ballots as they’re held up. I’m supposed to help him.
I don’t want to do this. Counting the ballots is a long and mind-numbing task. There’s 300-400 envelopes in each ballot box and two ballots in each envelope. The ballots for parliament are very long and unwieldy.
Here’s how it works: the chief of the ballot box committee picks up a ballot, loudly declares the vote stamped on it, at which point you, as observer, make a mark on the corresponding column on a sheet of paper.
Then the next one. Then the next one. It. Takes. Ages.
Every time someone has voted for your guy, you’re a little happy. Every time someone votes for the other guy, you get a little upset. This is a heavily Erdoğan-leaning neighborhood.
Again, I don’t want to do this, but damn him, the Zafer Party guy is right. There’s no opposition observer. I sit down.
But we can’t get the count started! As the committee unpacked all the envelopes and piled up the ballots in an orderly fashion (to be counted) there was a note in one of the envelopes. It’s a post-it-sized, hand-written note. We don’t know what it is, the committee says that once they saw the note slip out of the envelope, they didn’t get the ballots out of the envelope, so they can’t see who the person voted for.
It’s against the rules to put anything but the ballots in the envelopes, so this has to be documented and recorded.
The problem is that multiple observers are coming in and checking in on the situation, and it’s unclear whether the vote with the note is valid. It turns out that it isn’t. Someone comes in and shouts “did you make an official report?” [tutanak tuttunuz mu?] to which one of the committee members sarcastically replies “ah, yeah, we wouldn’t have made a report if you hadn’t asked for it!” The person apologizes [estafurullah abi] and leaves.
We finally get on with the count.
We’re done with the count. It was as mind-numbing as I feared. Our count is roughly 1:3 in Erdoğan’s favor.
There’s a very old, disheveled-looking man who’s part of the ballot box committee. I think he’s the CHP’s man, and he tells me that’s good for this neighborhood. “This count is in our favor” [lehimize], he says, “it’s all Tayyip here, it’s the mentality of the people.” There’s a young headscarved woman listening in behind me, I think she knows the man. She goes “yeah it’s the mentality of the people,” she’s tapping her index finger on her temple as she makes a grimace.
There’s now news coming in about the count. The rural areas are usually done first, which means that the AK Party’s votes are high early in the night, then they decrease over time. We all know that that’s a structural aspect of election night, but it still freaks out opposition supporters.
My Whatsapp groups are now buzzing with all sorts of people expressing outrage. The Erdoğan and AK Party votes aren’t going down.
Journalists are asking me for thoughts and comments.
All our corridor’s counts are done, but some still need to complete paperwork. Our job is to take a photo of the final report of each ballot box and send it to our WhatsApp group, whence it can be uploaded into the central system.
I talk to the software developer if he can cover for me, and he says he can. I leave.
I’m back home (after having dinner at my local kebab place.) I can hear my neighbors blasting the news.
It’s bad news for the opposition. Very bad news.
I do a media interview, doom scroll on Twitter, tweet some very ill-advised tweets.
I talk to some friends at one of the main opposition parties. I drive out to join them.
Everyone’s upset. A newly elected MP walks in. We talk about the campaign and what might happen next.
We’re at a restaurant having soup (the late-night meal of choice in Turkey.) The TV is on, and the whole place is silently watching Erdoğan come out and do his customary “balcony speech.”
That’s it. Since that day, our school’s volunteer Whatsapp group has been going pretty strong. People are upset about the outcome, but determined to show up for the second round.
Some have also expressed regret about the AK Party’s observers having been better organized than the opposition. I think part of this was because it was an Erdoğan-voting neighborhood, and most of us came from different parts of Ankara and didn’t know each other. Still, it’s very clear to me that the AK Party is consistently better organized on the grassroots level. There’s more of them, they know each other, they’re faster and more efficient. The opposition isn’t nearly as centralized and hierarchical. It’s a hodgepodge of different political parties and NGOs, collaborating as best as they can.
I’ll probably be back at the same school on the 28th.
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