Doubts are being cast by political leaders and protesters across Turkey amid voting irregularities in a constitutional referendum that grants extensive new powers to the President.
A crucial referendum on Turkey’s constitution took place April 16, 2017. The new constitution, if “YES” prevailed, would shift Turkey’s political order from a parliamentary system to a presidential system governed by a powerful executive branch.
Unofficial estimates supported by the Anatolia State News Agency and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a post-results speech declared “YES” the winner, with 25 million votes cast in favor of the proposed constitutional amendments and victory by a margin of 1.5 million votes.
It is “a major sign that our nation is protecting its future”, Erdogan said in a post-referendum speech at Huber Palace in Istanbul.
“That decision was no ordinary one. Today is the day when a change, a decision to shift to a truly serious administrative system was made,” Erdogan said.
The new constitution will go into effect in 2019 and will have the following effect on Turkey
- Vast expansion of the executive powers of the President and executive office
- Reset the clock on the current Presidents electoral limit, allowing him to run for two more consecutive 5-year term
- Abolish the position of the Prime Minister, currently held by PM Yildirim, a staunch support of President Erdogan
- Increase the number of parliamentary members
- Reduce the age of voting to 18
- Allow Presidents to remain the leader of the political parties they hail from
- Authorize the President to directly appoint cabinet officials
Follow the Polls…
The results were updated continuously throughout the day by Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK), except for a brief period when with around 70% of votes recorded the YSK ceased to publish results. Later, the YSK began counting votes again and updating results.
At the end of the night, while polls were closing, Turkey’s Supreme Election Board made an unexpected determination. The YSK took the unprecedented step of lifting a rule requiring that each of the ballots cast possess an official seal. In past elections, ballots unsealed by local clerks would have been considered invalid and would not have been considered in the final vote. From The Washington Post…
Just as polls were closing Sunday in Turkey for a referendum on constitutional amendments that would broaden the president’s powers, the country’s election authority took an unusual step: It lifted a rule requiring that each ballot have an official seal.
High turnout was expected, as many as 55 million Turkish citizens were eligible to cast a ballot (with at least 5 percent originating from abroad).
Polling in the days ahead of the referendum calculated a 51-49 outcome, with “YES” holding a slight advantage but within the margin of error.
Divisive rhetoric in the run-up to the referendum suggested a showdown was looming between those voting Evet (Yes) and the opposition stamping Hayir (No), regardless of the outcome.
The leader of the CHP (Republic People’s Party), the founding party in Turkey that was once led by Kemal Ataturk, the nation’s founder, was opposed to the changes and had the following to say in the run-up to the vote…
“Let’s protect the Republic together. Let’s not jump into an adventure and destroy our Republic. Let’s not gamble on the future of our beloved children. Let’s not sacrifice the chance to have equal opportunities, equality in front of justice and our right to call the authorities to account.”
President Erdogan appeared in a live TRT World interview two days before the vote. Throughout the campaign, he was often accused of casting the opposition as enemies of the state, or in league with Turkey’s enemies, both internal (Kurds) and abroad (Greece).
Additionally, the Liberal Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) opposed the proposed constitutional changes and were specifically targetted by the “YES” camp as being supportive of the PKK, a Kurdish political organization the Turkish state considers a terrorist organization.
Were the Results legitimate?
There are reasons to be skeptical of the final referendum results. Numerous important officials in Turkish politics, including the leader of the CHP have raised objections to the actions the election board took in the final hours of the referendum. Neither the CHP or the HDP are recognizing the results as legitimate, a major development in Turkish constitutional history.
Protesters took to the streets, some demanding a recount. It has been suggested that nearly 1.5 million, also the margin of the vote difference, were not valid, putting the final outcome of the referendum into question.
President Erdogan thwarted a July 2016 coup and has jailed tens of thousands of members of the press, civil service, academia, the military, and political officials. It is unlikely that Erdogan and the AKP, already so used to wielding great power against opposition forces, would admit to enough irregularities to allow a recount. It is more likely that protests against the new constitution will lead to a new round of oppressive actions taken by what will be an increasingly powerful Presidential Republic by 2019.
It is more likely that protests against the new constitution will lead to a new round of oppressive actions taken by what will be an increasingly powerful Presidential Republic.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
One day ahead of the constitutional referendum, Erdogan slammed the OSCE and an interim report that found voter intimidation widespread against “NO” voters. The Erdogan government has declared victory, but the OSCE has refused to recognize the results.
“Now the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe says if the result is ‘yes’, that means there are a lot of problems. Who are you? First of all, you should know your place. This is not your duty”, he told a crowd in Konya.
Over two weeks spent observing referendum campaigning, the OSCE found that supporters of the ‘No’ campaign faced bans, police interventions and violent clashes at their events.
The OSCE had a limited mission on the ground in Turkey. 24 long-term observers were lead by Tana de Zulueta of Italy, whose mission included the support of 7 participating states. They were deployed on March 25. The OSCE’s Limited Referendum Observation Mission (LROM) are not able to seriously assess whether the results are legitimate because of the constraints put on them by the Turkish government, but they were able to gather enough intelligence to prove the government was using state power to intimidate voters, which may have been enough to guarantee a successful outcome for Erdogan.
While the mission would visit a limited number of polling stations on referendum day, systematic observation of voting, counting or tabulation of results is not envisaged.
The day after the referendum, ODIHR will issue a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions at a press conference. A final report on the observation of the entire referendum process will be issued approximately eight weeks after the end of the observation mission.
Tensions Increase, Social Stability Shaken
We will have to wait for the full OSCE report, but as tensions increase in the streets of Istanbul and other cities across Turkey and representatives of the CHP and HDP make their concerns know, Europe is unlikely to look welcomingly at the new constitution, which could be described as dictatorial. The referendum took place amid a climate of fear.
No Heads of State called the President the night of his victory speech to congratulate his campaign and it appears unlikely the mood from Europe will shift. The OSCE press conference the morning after the results were announced cast serious doubts by calling the process far below international standards.
Saudi Arabia, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and most recently and after the OSCE press conference, Donald Trump have congratulated President Erdogan.