Murad Sezer / Reuters
A major international organization delivered a harsh verdict on the fairness and transparency of Turkey’s constitutional referendum, adding further doubts on a vote that gave the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vast new powers.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the vote on drastic constitutional changes and the campaign that preceded it at the invitation of the Turkish government, concluded in its preliminary assessment that the referendum took place in an environment of unfairness that failed to fully measure up to international standards.
“Our first assessment was this was indeed an unlevel playing field and a turning away from standards of impartiality and fairness,” OSCE mission chief Tana de Zulueta told reporters Monday at an Ankara press conference where the report was released.
Turkish voters approved on Sunday the raft of new measures by 51.4%, amid high voter turnout and opposition allegations of unfairness. The OSCE report took Turkish authorities to task for what it described as a highly imbalanced media environment that favored Erdogan’s “Yes” camp, the use of state resources to promote the “Yes” position, press restrictions on opposition and political arrests, and harassment of opponents ahead of the vote to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system of governance.
“One side’s dominance in the coverage and restrictions on the media reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views,” said the report. “The state did not ensure that voters were provided with impartial or balanced information on the amendments and their potential impact, thus limiting their ability to make an informed choice.”
The report also appeared to endorse the opposition’s complaint that the country’s electoral commission, which it accused of lacking transparency, changed its own rules on referendum day to order vote counters to consider valid ballots that lacked official stamps.
“These instructions undermined an important safeguard and contradicted the law that explicitly states that such ballots should be considered invalid,” the report said.
The OSCE report was an unusually harsh document for a staid inter-governmental organization that mostly assembles little-noticed conferences attended by bureaucrats. Its report on the referendum is highly significant because both the US and EU have said they would withhold judgement on the controversial referendum pending the OSCE findings.
Though the report praised the orderly and thorough casting of ballots, it noted features of the campaign and the voting itself that fell short of what it described as international conventions to which Turkey itself has signed on. It criticized the legal framework of the vote, which barred any organization but officially recognized political parties from campaigning, and restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech imposed in the wake of last year’s failed coup attempt.
It called the government’s strategy of forcing voters to choose on 18 amendments to change 72 articles of the constitution on a simple “Yes” or “No” vote without spelling out the changes on the ballot or at voting centers “contrary to good practice for referendum.”
The Turkish government had yet to weigh in on Monday’s report, but Erdogan slammed an interim report issued before the referendum.
“Who are you?” he reportedly said, addressing the OSCE monitors during a speech, in the city of Konya. “First of all, you should know your place.”