February 22, 2018 / 5:33 PM / 6 months ago

Turkish opposition sounds alarm over proposed voting law changes

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey’s opposition said on Thursday new electoral regulations proposed by President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party and its nationalist allies could open the door to fraud and jeopardise the fairness of 2019 elections.

Under a draft law submitted to parliament on Wednesday, security force members will be allowed into polling stations when invited by a voter, a measure the government says will stamp out intimidation by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

The bill also grants the YSK High Electoral Board the authority to merge electoral districts and move ballot boxes to other districts. Ballots will be admissible without the stamp of the local electoral board, formalising a decision made during a referendum last year that caused a widespread outcry among government critics and concern from election monitors.

“The proposal has many regulations that remove the open, fair, transparent and democratic tenets of elections,” said Filiz Kerestecioglu, a lawmaker from the Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which draws its strength from the southeast.

The government accuses the pro-Kurdish opposition of being an arm of the PKK and says it benefits from voter intimidation. The HDP denies this. The PKK, seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and Europe, has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state for three decades.

“The PKK terror organisation pressures and threatens to make sure that the political party that is its extension gets votes,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told state-run Anadolu agency on Thursday.

TRANSPARENCY

“If those voters went to the ballot boxes according to their free will, this political party that is the extension of the PKK would not be able to get this many votes,” Bozdag said.

But Baris Yarkadas, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said the presence of security forces could be used to make the vote count less transparent.

The HDP also fears the measures could lead to ballot boxes being moved out of districts where it has been popular, Mehmet Tiryaki, the party’s representative to the electoral board, said.

Turks go to the polls next year for presidential and parliamentary elections. Last year they backed, by a 51.4 percent margin, a referendum to create an executive presidency with sweeping new powers for Erdogan.

That vote was marred by a last-minute decision by the YSK High Electoral Board to accept unstamped ballots. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), a Europe-based election monitor, said that had “removed an important safeguard”.

The measures are part of a larger draft law to allow parties to form electoral alliances, something the ruling AK Party and the nationalist opposition have said they plan to do.

By including the changes among a series of amendments, the AK Party is avoiding discussion of the individual regulations, the HDP’s Tiryaki said, adding the AKP had proposed similar laws in the past but withdrawn them.

“They must have known they were wrong,” he said.

Additional reporting by Ercan Gurses in Ankara; Editing by David Dolan and Janet Lawrence

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