A rule of thumb in a fair referendum is to ask a clear question with a simple answer. For example, in June 2016 the British public were asked “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
But on Sunday, Turkey’s voters were not asked a question at all. There was just a small slip of paper divided between “Yes” or “No”. Voters were left to presume what exactly they were voting for or against, perhaps authorities were hoping that citizens would be swayed by government propaganda. In some cases two stamps were used to mark the vote. One which said ‘choice,’ and another which had ‘yes’. To make matters worse, Turkey’s Supreme Council of Elections made a judgment as votes were being counted that as many as 1.5 million ballots not officially sealed would be counted. No wonder opposition parties are appealing and rejecting the results. Marchers protested in some parts of Turkish cities chanting “this is only the beginning, we’ll continue to fight”, as was chanted during the 2013 Gezi Park protests.
Even when the constitutional changes were debated in parliament back in January, Erdogan’s ruling AKP resorted to underhanded measures. Fist fights broke out and AKP members refused to vote in secret, deterring sceptical deputies from voting against. Little time was allowed for proper debate. Instead the AKP rushed through the proceedings in a matter of weeks.
Since last July’s failed coup, supposedly by a Gülenist military faction, Turkey has remained under an extended state of emergency. In addition to the purges of hundreds of thousands of state employees, the government was able to pass a decree allowing private broadcasters to disproportionately air Yes campaign material without receiving a fine. The subdued media played hours upon hours of pro-government propaganda including speeches by Erdogan and AKP officials. The opposition struggled to get airtime.
Meanwhile, the state of emergency allowed the government to ban public meetings, rallies and protests, and even restrict access to public places. Anyone accused of terrorism, a charge broadly define in Turkey, can be detained for up to seven days. In other words, it was very difficult for Erdogan’s opponents to campaign effectively. Earlier this year, in what was a warning before the campaigning began, two people were arrested for “openly provoking people to hatred and enmity”. Their crime was to simply declare the importance of secularism in an Istanbul tea house.
During the electioneering, Erdogan and members of the AKP associated naysayers with terrorists and coup plotters, nefarious labels as Turkey deals with an upsurge of terrorist incidents since 2015 that has left hundreds dead and a coup plot that claimed the lives of over 260 people.
OSCE’s concerns about the unfair conduct of the referendum was well known to Turkish officials. They had already published a preliminary report highlighting their concerns ten days before the vote. In fact, OSCE raised such concerns in all of its reports of Turkish elections including the 2014 Presidential race and the June and November 2015 general elections. Each time OSCE highlighted its serious concerns about the Turkish government and the President’s conduct and the use of their offices and state finances for their campaigns. Each time OSCE was simply ignored.
Ahead of Sunday’s referendum every Turkish city was adorned with Yes banners, billboards and posters. The No campaign was but a murmur. The Yes campaign held dozens of mass rallies while the opposition struggled to find venues. Members of the Kurdish oriented and liberal People’s Democratic Party (HDP) remained in detention under trumped up terrorism related charges, effectively silencing them for much of the process. As the Southeast descended into civil War since the breakdown of the ceasefire with the PKK in July 2015, up to 500,000 Kurds have been displaced, meaning that hundreds of thousands were unable to register to vote. OSCE noted these problems ahead of the referendum. Erdogan’s response was that OSCE “should know your place”.
Despite the deficiencies in the election process Erdogan will enjoy considerable powers including the right to appoint government ministers without parliamentary consultation, dismiss parliament, declare a state of emergency, veto parliamentary legislation, issue his own decrees, choose nearly half of high court judges and officially lead a political party. With such powers in the hands of just one man, Turkey can’t be called a democracy. And with with electoral irregularities so apparent, for around half of Turks President Erdogan lacks legitimacy.
A divided country with schisms on political, religious and ethnic lines, Turkey needed this election to be as free and fair as possible. However, it wasn’t, and Erdogan will crush anyone who dares to protest or object.
Simon A. Waldman is a visiting research fellow at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London. He teaches the Arab-Israeli Conflict, state building in the region and Turkish history and politics.
Emre Caliskan is a Turkish analyst and journalist who previously worked for the BBC and Turkish public channel TRT. He is now a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford.
They are the authors of The New Turkey and its Discontents, published by Hurst in November 2016.