External voting to be implemented for the first time in Turkey’s forthcoming presidential elections

By Asli Okyay, PhD researcher (European University Institute)

External voting was introduced for the first time in Turkey by the amendment on the law on elections and electoral registers (no.298) in 1987. It made it possible for Turkish citizens who are registered as living abroad for a period longer than six months to vote in general elections and referenda. However, the turnout rate among absentee voters has remained quite low, given that the method of voting was limited to casting votes at the polling stations set up at the border. The Amendment (no. 4121) to Article 67 of the Constitution in 1995 aimed at opening room for new legislation enabling citizens residing abroad to exercise their right to vote from there. This amendment also gave the right a constitutional basis. The 1995 Amendment (no. 4125) on the election law assigned the task of organising and managing elections abroad to the Supreme Election Board (YSK). Nevertheless, it also stated that if ‘factual or legal obstacles’ were encountered before carrying out elections abroad, the existing method of voting at the border stations should be maintained. In the four general elections from 1995 to 2007, voting at the border remained the only method, justified with the presence of such legal and factual obstacles. Turkish lawmakers considered mail ballots  as breaching the secrecy of the vote, whereas setting up polling stations in the emigrants’ countries of residence met objections raised by some of these countries (mainly of Germany) which feared political protests and fights between rival political groups. 

In March 2008 a new bill, proposed by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), was adopted by the Parliament. It introduced voting by mail, electronic voting, voting at diplomatic representations, and at border stations as alternative voting methods . The Republican People’s Party (CHP) applied to the Constitutional Court for the annulment of the provision about postal voting, arguing that it is in conflict with the principles of voting in privacy and free from any pressure. Shortly after, the Constitutional Court revoked the clause on postal voting as unconstitutional (Decision no.2008/113). Before the 2011 general elections, government officials made declarations about on-going negotiations with Germany for implementing absentee voting through enabling voting at the diplomatic representations. However, the Supreme Election Board’s February 2011 decision (no.120) ruled out that possibility. The Board referred to the insufficiently prepared infrastructure and the resulting unequal treatment between Turkish citizens in Germany and those residing in other countries if external voting were to be applied only in Germany. 

A final amendment (no.6304) to the electoral law  from May 2012 regulated methods of external voting (taking out the postal voting option), the creation of an overseas voters’ registry, and defined the tasks of the YSK and the diplomatic representations in the organisation and management of external elections. The new provisions will apply to the forthcoming elections in August 2014, when the president of Turkey will be chosen for the first time by direct general elections.  Thus, this will be also the first  voting at polling stations set up at diplomatic representations and/or other designated areas abroad. Sadi Güven, the Chairman of the YSK, has recently announced that the presidential elections will take place in two rounds in August and has given details about the organisation of elections abroad (Anadolu Ajansı, 2 March 2014). According to Güven, out of a total of 2,750,820 voters abroad, 1,380,903 live in Germany. YSK is planning to set up ballot boxes in a total of 118 diplomatic representations in 56 countries where there are at least 500 voters. There are plans to set up 7 polling stations in Germany, 6 in the United States, and 5 in France. If diplomatic representations are deemed to be insufficient due to high number of voters in certain areas, ballot boxes will be set up in other designated areas rented by the state. Voting at these overseas polling stations will take place over four days (between 31 July and 3 August), preceding the elections in Turkey. The voting process will be managed and supervised by election committees of five members, composed of political party members and YSK observers. Ballot boxes will be transported to Turkey and opened and counted simultaneously with the votes cast in Turkey.