The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan swept up and jailed a team of international observers on hand to monitor election day activity in Turkey on Sunday, members of the team told The Intercept in a statement.
The delegation had not been granted official observer accreditation by the Erdogan government, but were formally invited by the HDP, the leading Kurdish party and a key member of the opposition coalition.
The election held on Sunday was the closest contest Erdogan has faced in the two decades he has been in power. Immediately, the opposition coalition, led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, charged election irregularities, zeroing in on what Kilicdaroglu said was an extremely large number of objections to ballot boxes in Istanbul and Ankara — urban areas where the opposition dominated. “You are blocking the will of Turkey,” Kilicdaroglu said.
Erdogan fell short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff, officially winning more than 49.5 percent of the vote with fewer than 100,000 overseas ballots remaining to be tallied. A runoff will be held on May 28. Sinan Ogan, whose 5 percent of the vote forced the runoff by keeping both candidates under 50 percent, also made allegations of vote-counting manipulation by the government.
The Spanish observers included members of the left-leaning Podemos party; EH Bildu, a Basque nationalist coalition; and a senator from Esquerra Republicana, a Catalonian leftist party. The observers were in the Kurdish-majority city of Siirt when they were arrested and taken to a police station on Sunday, the day of the election. Officers then went to the hotel where the observers were staying and arrested the remaining members of the delegation, who joined their comrades in detention at the police station. They were held until Monday morning and released on the condition they leave the country, escorted to the airport and flown back to Spain on Monday and Tuesday.
Ismael Cortés, a national congressional deputy with Podemos, and Miriam Ojeda, a representative of the International Secretariat of Podemos, were among those detained. Spain and Turkey are both members of NATO.
“The situation of the retention and expulsion as a delegation that we have experienced is just one example of the greater context of repression and persecution of the opposition that has been experienced for years in Turkey and that has the Kurdish people as a special objective,” said Cortés. “We are concerned about the situation of the members and supporters of the YSP and HDP party and the respect for their fundamental, civil, and political rights.”
The observers also said in a statement to The Intercept that several members of the Kurdish YSP party were also arrested. Their fate is not known, and the Erdogan government did not respond to requests for comment. “This new and intolerable example of repression demonstrates the authoritarian drift of the regime of Erdogan, which undermines the democratic principles and fundamental rights of the Turkish citizenry and, especially, of the peoples present in this territory, such as the Kurdish,” the observers said in the statement.
Polls taken ahead of the election had the opposition ahead of Erdogan, sometimes by as much as 5 or 6 percentage points, leaving observers stunned at Erdogan beating the opposition by at least 4 points in the first round. Selim Koru, an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey and a critic of Erdogan, said that he doesn’t believe most of the vote-counting claims being made by the opposition will hold up. “The big thing is that most people in the opposition space came to trust the polls. Most of the evidence really favored the opposition,” he said. “But polling these days has a problem detecting right-wing bias. Something similar happened in the U.S. in 2016. We thought the pollsters took that into account, but I guess they didn’t.”
Ahead of the election, Erdogan’s government pressured Twitter to censor opposition voices and critical journalists — a request to which Twitter’s outgoing CEO Elon Musk instantly capitulated. “In response to legal process and to ensure Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey, we have taken action to restrict access to some content in Turkey today,” Twitter posted.
Musk acknowledged that the government had threatened to take the site down, as Erdogan did in 2014 when Twitter refused to comply with a similar demand. The previous Twitter leadership, however, took Turkey’s government to court and prevailed in its Supreme Court.
Update: May 16, 2023, 7:15 a.m.
This piece has been updated with a quote from Ismael Cortés.