Erdogan's opponents prepare to 'protect' ballot boxes
There were 100 of them, all lawyers, determined to make next Sunday's Turkish election as transparent as possible.
Filling a lecture hall in Ankara, they were completing vote monitoring courses organised by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political rivals.
Many were discussing a claim by Turkey's hawkish interior minister that the West was plotting a "political coup attempt" on election day.
"The fact that the government is so close to losing for the first time makes us fear possible problems," lawyer Ilke Yakupoglu said.
"There is no way to protect our votes other than by looking after the ballot boxes."
Polls show Erdogan running neck-and-neck with opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is also threatening to end his Islamic-rooted party's control of parliament.
The arrest last week of 50 lawyers appointed by a pro-Kurdish party to monitor the vote in Turkey's ethnically diverse southeast has only heightened tensions.
They were among more than 100 people rounded up in what the government called an "anti-terror" operation.
"These elections are critical," said Nuray Ozdogan, a member of the pro-Kurdish party who heads the Ankara lawyers' association.
"The government's statements show that they will be neither free or fair."
- Eroded trust -
Riven by both failed and successful coups, Turkey nonetheless has established a proud tradition of democratic transitions of executive power through the ballot box.
Turkey's election commission has pledged to guarantee a fair result in the nation of 85 million, including in areas of the southeast ravaged by the February earthquake that claimed more than 50,000 lives.
But Kilicdaroglu, a 74-year-old former civil servant who heads a leftist secular party, said he "does not trust" voting officials.
Turkey's democracy was last tested when the commission annulled opposition star Ekrem Imamoglu's defeat of Erdogan's ally in Istanbul's 2019 mayoral election.
Many of Erdogan's own voters rebelled in a re-run vote, handing Imamoglu an overwhelming victory.
Scarred by the episode, Kilicdaroglu's supporters plan to send 300,000 observers to the 50,000 polling stations across Turkey, doubling their number from the last presidential vote in 2018.
"We will protect the 192,000 ballot boxes," said Oguz Kaan Salici, the main opposition party's election security pointman.
The Oy ve Otesi (Vote and Beyond) NGO is separately planning to dispatch 100,000 of its own monitors, up from 60,000 in 2018.
- Voting for the dead? -
Groups such as Oy ve Otesi have also created websites to help nearly 1.7 million people who were displaced by the earthquake but will need to return to their hometowns to vote.
Opposition parties are chartering buses to help out.
European observers are nervous about the vote's fate in the heavily damaged region, concerned in particular about the possibility of people using victims' recovered identity documents to vote.
"We don't really know what happened to the identity cards" of the dead and missing, Frank Schwabe, a German lawmaker who heads the Council of Europe's monitoring mission, told AFP.
Schwabe will head a 40-member team, while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will mobilise 350 of its own experts.
Ozgur Yusuf Kavukcu, who left the completely destroyed city of Antakya for Ankara, said a lot of his friends wanted to return to both vote and monitor the process.
"We are worried that others may vote in place of the dead," Kavukcu said.
"There are people whose bodies have still not been found, like those who lived in my neighbouring building."
But some members of the opposition predict a fair outcome and a smooth transition of power in case of Erdogan's defeat.
"Power will change hands like it changed hands in 2002," when Erdogan's party first won, Salici said.
"No one will stop that."