Turkish Elections: Erdogan’s Government Arrested and Expelled International Election Observers

Ryan Grim interviews Ismael Cortés, a member of Spain’s parliament, who was expelled from Turkey as he worked as an election observer.

election turkey 2023 erdogan ballot
An official holds ballots at a polling station, in Istanbul, Turkey, May 14, 2023. Photo: DHA via AP

On Sunday, as the first round of Turkish elections were underway, the government expelled a team of international election observers. The delegation, including members of Spain’s parliament, was invited by a leading Kurdish party to observe the elections. This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Ismael Cortés, one of the election observers who was expelled. Cortés is a member of the left-wing Podemos party in Spain and a representative in Spain’s Congress of Deputies. Cortés tells how, as he visited voting sites in southern Turkey, he and his team were arrested by Turkish officials and later expelled from the country. He emphasizes that even though he and the team were mistreated by Turkish officials, it is nothing compared to the repression Kurdish people face.

[Deconstructed intro theme music.]

Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim, and today we’re checking back in on the first round of the Turkish elections, which saw Tayyip Erdo?an outperform polls and force a runoff, which will take place on May 28th.

I’m joined today by Ismael Cortés, who’s a member of the left-leaning Podemos Party in the Spanish Congress of Deputies who was on hand during the election in Eastern Turkey, the Kurdish region at the invitation of the opposition party, and things went about as poorly as you could possibly imagine for Cortés and his international team of elected officials and civil society representatives.

Now, we reached out to the Turkish government to get their response to what was a truly shocking move on their part, but we have yet to hear back. If we do we’ll, append their response.

Ismael was slightly delayed joining us today because he was finishing a debate on the floor of Congress. So, I have to ask, Ismael, what were you debating, and did you win? 

Ismael Cortés: Yes. We were debating the enlargement of the permission for parents after maternity.

RG: And how’s that going? Are they going to get it?

IC: Yes.

RG: Well, wonderful! Congratulations. It’s frustrating, sometimes, when we in America hear about the state of European politics, compared to what we’re able to get. Right now, the big debate in Washington is whether or not they’re going to attach stricter work requirements to welfare benefits — that’s what Republicans are demanding in exchange for not blowing up the global economy by pushing the US into default. So, real civilized debate that we have going on here.

But, over in Turkey, can you tell us about the city you were in, and how you came to be there? 

IC: Yeah. So, I was invited by the HDP party, which is part of the Yesiller Ve Sol Party, the Green left party in Turkey, and it is a Kurdish party. This is part of the Kurdistan, southeast of Turkey. And the intention was to observe the election, and to be together, and to visit different electoral colleges, just to make sure that everything was made according to democratic standards. 

RG: And so, the election was held on Sunday. What was the beginning of your day like, and when did it start to go badly? 

IC: So, I started at 8 a.m. I went together with them to advocate lawyers of the city. We visited 14 electoral colleges in different villages. Small villages, around 100, 700 inhabitants. And the whole day [went] quite well. It is true that we [had] to pass by two checkpoints that were controlled by the Turkish gendarmerie, which were acting, actually, as an army; heavily armed and controlling every movement between villages. So, everyone was checked into a list.

But the problem was at the end of the day, when more and more people of the Spanish delegation end up in the police station without any proper information.

RG: Right. So, how does that happen? How did the police just start rounding up members of this Spanish delegation on hand to observe the election?

IC: So, first it was even in the electoral colleges. They went to the electoral colleges as soon as they knew that international observers were in the electoral college, and they took them, with the excuse that they were violating the national electoral law, just because they put a tweet on Twitter.

And from there it started everything. We thought that that was a joke. So, they arrested some of the people, but then they were released. But, again, they were taken into the police station, then liberated. And, as soon as the day was passing, more and more people were in the police [station]. And, at the end, a group of police came to the hotel, interrupted the session because we were following the result of the election, and they took them all to the police station. 

RG: Did you go? Were you taken, also, to the police station? 

IC: I was also [taken to] the police station. I think I was the last one, at 12 a.m. It was already night, after the electoral result. So, they took us, and they put some of us in the police car and even to the police station, without any information, any accusation, or any allegation. 

RG: They just said, “Come with us.”

IC: They [said], “Come with us, we want to check your passport.” I said, “You can check my passport here, make a picture, and you can have a talk with the Spanish embassy that will verify all my data.” And they say, “No, it’s better if you come to the police, and we check your passport there.” Which is totally unusual and, I think, even illegal.

RG: And what did you hear from your colleagues who had been there for a while, before you got there?

IC: Yeah, some of them were even [there] very early in the morning, from 10 a.m. So, they were, from the beginning, just annoying my colleagues, making promises that they were [to be] liberated in 30 minutes, then in one hour, then two hours. And then they ended up being in the police station more than 24 hours.

RG: How long were you in the station?

IC: I was driven to the police station, as I said before, at 12 a.m., and then we were not really reevaluated. We were driven to the airport around 7 a.m. Police were with us in the airport until 3 p.m. of the next day. So, I think it was around 15 hours.

RG: Did you sleep at all? What was the delegation doing in the jail? 

IC: No, not at all. So I was together with other member of Parliament, I was one of those who was in charge of making the connections with the Spanish Embassy, and with the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs. So, I [had] to say loudly that they were, all the process, all along the way, helping, to the Spanish delegation, to the 10 people that were detained in the police station of Siirt.

RG: And I know it can be obnoxious when people say, “Hey, do you have any idea who I am.” But did you say to the police, “Listen, I’m a member of Congress, I’m an MP from Spain here to observe the election?” What was the response from police officials?

IC: Not really. I didn’t make that claim, myself, because I knew they would play with us. I thought that they already had all the information about us, so I didn’t want to allow them to make fun of me and my colleagues. But it was the Spanish ambassadors who said, “Did you know that, Iman, the people are two deputies, two members of parliament and one senator?” And [the] police, they were, all along, very [disrespectful].

RG: How did they treat people physically? Were you, was anybody mistreated? Or no? 

IC: It was not a violent, physically violent mistreatment, but it was more a kind of intimidation. An attitude of intimidation, making clear that they ruled the party beyond any democratic standards.

[Deconstructed mid-show theme music.]

RG: You said in your statement that some members of the Kurdish Party as well were swept up. Do you have any sense of what their fate was?

IC: What we know is, this is, for us, it’s an extraordinary experience. We went to Siirt, in the southeast of Turkey, Kurdistan, and we were treated as potential terrorists. This is the truth. But for people – and, especially, those members of the opposition who live there – this is a daily-basis experience, unluckily. But this is what happens with them. Usually they are put in the police station, or they have to suffer fake trials, and so on.

RG: And what was your sense of what the turnout was looking like and how the election was going? Because I know – and maybe you could give people some background, American listeners who don’t know the context – but, you know, the Kurdish opposition has often had kind of a delicate relationship with other elements of the Turkish opposition. And, this time, the full opposition came in coalition together in a way that they really hadn’t in the past. Sometimes the opposition coalition would reject the Kurdish elements, to serve whatever kind of bigotry there was on the part of some voters they thought they might be able to win over.

What was it from the Kurdish perspective that allowed the coalition to kind of come together this time?

IC: This is so true. I think, first of all, Erdo?an wanted to win in the first round, to show to the country and to the world that he’s the strong leader that has been ruling Turkey in the last 20 years. So, this is momentous, yeah? We can say that it is a kind of victory for the opposition, that they can take a second round.

Also, it is true that in the Kurdish region, but also in big cities, the opposition gained most of the seats of the Parliament. So, in terms of the legislative elections, it was also a good result. Now, we have to see what will happen on the 28th and, especially, what is the weight and the role that the extreme right will have in those elections, how they position and how they align with Erdo?an’s party.

But, answering your question, I think there is a sense that democracy in Turkey is first priority, and the coalition of the leftist parties with CHP, I think, is a very healthy one.

RG: Yeah, I saw the news recently that the candidate who finished third with 4 or 5 percent – you know, the reason that both candidates were kept under the 50 percent – he said he would endorse the opposition, but its condition for doing so was that the opposition must basically denounce its Kurdish element. Which is just, I assume, an offer he knows the opposition is not going to accept.

Do you think that that was expected from the Kurdish elements going into it?

IC: No, not really, not really. The issue is that this is a very extremist element of Turkish politics. He’s an extreme right candidate who — It’s an extreme nationalist Turkish party that is going to destroy the democratic movement. So, in a way, he was making fun of the opposition coalition.

RG: Right, right. What’s been the reaction back in Spain, now that you’ve landed and been released, and the news is out of your detention? Were your colleagues stunned or is Erdo?an – ?

IC: No, they do, they do, of course. And there is a preoccupation, not only from the side of the leftist parties or my colleagues, but also from the Socialist Party and all the democratic parties. I have to say that even the presidency of the Congress of Deputies, was following the fact that, two members of parliament and one senator were detained in a police station in Siirt, in Turkey. And, also, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was, all along, helping us, and I’ve been talking with him today.

So there is a big preoccupation of what is going on in [regards to] Erdo?an. And the fact that they detained a Spanish delegation and, among the Spanish delegation, members of the congress and the Senate, it [had] a huge impact in media and social media, but also in big newspapers here.

RG: And has the Spanish government pressed for any type of apology or accountability? Or is this the type of thing that you think Erdo?an will just blow off?

IC: What I can say is that, already, the Spanish government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has made a request to the Turkish government to make explanation. It is like a formal inquiry. It’s a diplomatic way of asking for explanation. But, so far, we didn’t [receive] any. 

RG: Any final thoughts? How do you reflect on your night in this southeastern Turkish prison?

IC: To me, what is clear is that there is a context of repression and persecution in Turkey, especially in the region of Kurdistan, that we have experienced one day in. I can say, in an undemocratic way: what I think is that the Kurdish people, and especially those who want a political change, suffer much more violence, political violence and police violence, in [their] everyday life.

RG: Well, Ismael, thank you for joining us. And congratulations on the expanded maternity and paternity leave. I’m sure that will be much appreciated by parents in Spain. Thank you for joining me. 

IC: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me in your program.

[Deconstructed end-show theme music.]

RG: That was Ismael Cortés, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept.

Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s Editor in Chief, and I’m Ryan Grim, DC Bureau Chief of The Intercept.

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Thanks so much, and I’ll see you soon.

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