How Hope Returned to Turkey

“Did we make a difference?” the young organizer asked.

As that question hung in the air, all our phones buzzed at once. We had a new message from the WhatsApp group being used to coordinate the more than 300 people who acted as poll monitors on Sunday in Bayrampasa, an Istanbul neighborhood where 172,000 people had just voted in parliamentary elections.

The “Oy ve Otesi” (Votes and More) volunteers had set up in a coffee shop — the Wi-Fi, power outlets and caffeine making it an ideal activist gathering spot in this neighborhood, a stronghold of Turkey’s ruling party, the Islamist Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P.

Obsessively monitoring election results was a relatively new phenomenon for these activists. They wanted to change Turkish politics, and hoped the A.K.P. might lose its majority. But until recently many had felt too disillusioned with the system to try anything to disrupt it.

Until 2013. That’s when the people in charge wanted to pave over Gezi Park. The protests, which had started as an effort to protect the park from being razed, turned into opposition to the perceived authoritarian nature of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister, and to corruption in the mass media, much of it under government control.

One year after the Gezi protests, and one year before these parliamentary elections, Mr. Erdogan ascended to the presidency, traditionally a somewhat ceremonial position. He wants to change the Constitution to increase its powers. Though the Constitution calls on the president to be above politics, Mr. Erdogan spent the past few months crisscrossing the country, holding mass rallies, appealing to the voters to return the A.K.P. to power, and attacking opposition parties as disloyal, incompetent or treasonous.

One of the volunteers with Oy ve Otesi told me that it was this “disregard for the rules” that bothered her, and why she had taken to the streets during the Gezi Park protests, facing tear gas and pepper spray for weeks. “Nobody should be above the law,” she said.

Almost everything depended on whether the small, mostly Kurdish, People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., passed the threshold of 10 percent of votes to make it into Parliament, a legacy of the Constitution drawn up by the 1980 military dictatorship.

In 2002, the A.K.P. came to power with an impressive two-thirds of deputies in the Parliament, with about a third of the votes, as key rivals hadn’t met the threshold. That majority allowed it to rule single-handedly, and it did well, taking popular steps in both the economy and politics. But after it won a third mandate, in 2011, the magic faded.

In the cliffhanger polls before the latest election, the H.D.P. hovered around 10 percent. It carried out a clever campaign to broaden its base, asking people to vote it above the threshold. The past few elections had been marred by allegations of fraud. Just last week, a poll monitor was convicted of having changed the votes, in favor of the A.K.P., in 36 of the 50 ballot boxes she oversaw in elections last year.

One Oy ve Otesi coordinator told me that the conviction was “a good deterrent,” though monitoring was still necessary.

During the Gezi Park protests, I interviewed hundreds of participants. Though I was born only a few blocks away, what struck me was not how strange it was to see a sea of tents and political billboards covering one of Istanbul’s main squares, but how similar it all felt to other movements: spontaneous, digitally connected, disillusioned with traditional politics. Like many protesters I have spoken with around the world, Gezi activists expressed a deep yearning for change, but no faith in the existing institutions — electoral, legal or otherwise — for effecting it.

The park was saved, but in the elections that followed, the A.K.P. held on to many crucial mayorships, and Mr. Erdogan was elected president. Many I spoke with during this period complained bitterly about how state resources had been mobilized to help the A.K.P.

But many also concluded that, as corrupt as the political process seemed, sitting it all out only made things worse. As flawed as representative democracy has become, there is also no viable alternative yet, in scale or legitimacy. Street protests are a powerful expression of dissent, but do not, and cannot, carry the same mandate as a vote.

So how do you change a system designed to swallow up those who try? In Spain and Greece, the street protesters have turned to forming electoral coalitions. In Argentina, a generation of activists are running for office, armed with digital platforms that allow them to remain accountable to their voters via online assemblies. And in Turkey, grass-roots organizations have sprung up, to fulfill functions abandoned by mainstream institutions: reporting news, monitoring elections, investigating corruption.

On the evening of the latest elections, I attended a vote count with an Oy ve Otesi volunteer, a lawyer. Just before the box containing the ballots — all of them inside closed envelopes — was to be opened, the lawyer reminded everyone that they first needed to put the ink stamps used for voting into a canvas bag, and seal it.

There was some grumbling at her scrupulous attention to detail; everyone was tired after a long delay, and with so many monitors in the room, there was no real danger of fraud.

“Look, let’s just do everything the way it should be.”

One poll officer looked at us and agreed: “She’s right, you know. Let’s do everything as it should be. Voting is sacred.”

After a murmur passed, the process went on. When it was over, everyone shook hands.

Other monitors told me similar stories: The worst they saw was sloppiness, not fraud.

Later, as the results poured in, the phones buzzed with the news that turnout was very high (85 percent), and that the H.D.P. had comfortably crossed the electoral threshold, denying the A.K.P. not only the votes to make the presidency more powerful, but also a majority in Parliament. Oy ve Otesi volunteers stayed up through the night, though, entering tallies from the ballot boxes around the country into an online platform, crowdsourcing the verification of the results, and closely watching the state agency that announced the official returns, box by box.

My phone buzzed with a message from another member of the group: “We made a difference. See you in the next election.”

Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a contributing opinion writer.

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