ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey will relocate polling stations in some areas with a high Kurdish population, a move officials said would stop voter intimidation, but which the main pro-Kurdish party called a manoeuvre to keep it out of parliament in elections next month.
Announcing the measure on Monday, the High Electoral Board (YSK) did not specify how many ballot boxes would be moved but said 144,000 voters lived in the affected districts in eastern provinces.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said the polling stations were being moved from villages where the party has a strong backing to nearby villages with more support for President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party.
It said the move was designed to keep the HDP below a 10 percent threshold of votes needed to enter parliament.
The move was made possible by legislation passed in parliament two months ago authorising the YSK to merge electoral districts and move ballot boxes to other districts.
The government said the law was changed to address concerns that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) could intimidate voters in the mainly Kurdish southeast to vote for the HDP.
“Security is important but going to the polls with free will is also very important,” YSK Chairman Sadi Guven was quoted as saying by state-run Anadolu news agency.
The electoral law, which triggered a brawl on the floor of parliament when it was passed in March, will also admit ballots that are not stamped by the local electoral board and allows security force members into polling stations when invited by a voter.
Opposition parties say the changes will make the vote counting process less transparent.
“We see that the decision (to move the ballot boxes) was made for villages where the HDP gets a large share of the votes, around 75-80 percent,” HDP spokesman Ayhan Bilgen said.
“In the villages to which the ballot boxes will be moved, on the contrary, it is seen that the AKP gets 75-80 percent of votes.”
The government accuses the HDP of being a political extension of the PKK and says it benefits from voter intimidation. The HDP denies this. The PKK, considered a terrorist group by the United States and Europe, has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.
Polls have shown the HDP’s share of the vote at around 10 percent and the total opposition share roughly 50 percent - making it a tight contest to get control of parliament.
Should the HDP fail to reach the threshold, its votes would be split between other parties, which would strongly boost AKP’s numbers and likely guarantee it a majority.
“144,000 voters constitute a serious numeric quantity that could determine the outcome of the election,” the HDP’s Bilgen said.
Reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans and Robin Pomeroy