Turkey’s Anti-Fraud Army Prepares for Local Elections

At least 25,000 election monitors are planning to fan out across Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, to prevent fraud during local elections on March 30 as governing and opposition parties warn of ballot rigging.

A civil movement called “Vote and Beyond” is mobilizing the volunteers to monitor and provide evidence to political parties if they fall victim to possible irregularities, said Sercan Celebi, a spokesman for the movement said by phone today. Other monitors plan to work in the second city, Ankara.

The local poll is a critical test for the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has been ensnared in a corruption probe allegedly implicating senior ministers and members of their families since December. While opinion polls have fluctuated in the lead up to the vote, there’s evidence that the premier’s reputation has suffered, with a poll by Ankara-based MetroPOLL last month showing his approval rating down to 43.5 percent last month from 59.1 percent a year before.

Yesterday, Erdogan’s ruling party and opposition parties urged their supporters to be extra vigilant when votes are counted after the March 30 vote. Suspicions of possible fraud are fueled by March 11 theft of stamps used by voters to mark parties on ballot sheets in Istanbul. Irregularities marred some past Turkish elections, including the 1994 municipal vote that saw Erdogan elected as mayor of Istanbul.

‘Pretzel and Tea’

Opposition parties hope to exploit public dissatisfaction with the government after it responded to the graft investigation by purging thousands of policemen and scores of prosecutors. Last week, it blocked access to Twitter Inc. where audio tapes purporting to show the involvement of ministers in wrongdoing had been posted.

“If you take a break from your duty at polling stations to have a sesame pretzel and tea, then you will never realize the cheating and stealing of the votes,” Devlet Bahceli, head of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party told a rally in central Anatolian city of Aksaray yesterday. “You will be hungry, you will be thirsty, you will fast to be on duty on that day.”

Istanbul is a key battleground in the vote. There will be more than 32,000 ballot boxes in the city, where 10 million voters are registered, according to the country’s High Election Board. A total of about 53 million voters are registered across Turkey, according to the board.

While polls vary wildly, most show AKP leading competitors in the race, after winning 39 percent of the vote in the last local ballots in 2009. In the 2011 parliamentary election, it got 50 percent. All suspects, including the sons of three ministers who were detained in December on charges including gold smuggling, bribery and bid-rigging, have been released.

The MetroPOLL survey found about 37 percent of people would vote for Erdogan’s ruling party if general elections were held now, compared to the party’s 49.9 percent share of votes in the 2011 general election.

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