Monday, May 1, 2017

Referendum fraught with irregularities

On April 16 the Turks cast the vote that fundamentally changes their country. 51.4% of the voters put a stamp of approval on constitutional changes that turn the country into a presidential republic and expand the role and powers of the president considerably. The changes would go into effect in 2019 and, if elected, would mean Erdogan remains in power until 2029.

The campaign for the referendum was heavily flawed, an “uneven playing field”, as the international monitors called it. The OSCE and the Council of Europe (of which Turkey is a member!), through their observers (who were invited by the Turkish government), evaluated the campaign and referendum and concluded that it did not meet the council’s standards. The scathing report they published shortly after the results describes the state of affairs in Turkey essentially as a dictatorship, to which Erdogan replied: 'Know your place'If these are not tendencies of a dictator, then what is, I wonder?

The state of emergency declared after the July 2016 coup gave way to gross abuses of power by Erdogan: he fired hundreds of thousands of civil servants, jailed thousands of members of the military, professors, judges etc. without due process, closed down newspapers, media networks and effectively purged the country of any dissenting public voice. That gave Erdogan absolute control of the media, which meant the ‘YES’ campaign benefited from a highly disproportionate amount of airtime. People did not have access to impartial information on what the constitutional changes actually represent. The 'NO' protesters were systematically harassed and intimidated: they were attacked by opponents or arrested by police. Erdogan labeled the 'NO' camp as "terrorists" and rallies were banned by the governors in Istanbul and Ankara. As a result of the ongoing civil war, millions of displaced Kurds lost their voter registration and were potentially excluded from voting in the referendum. The observers found that fundamental freedoms which define a democratic society: free press, freedom of assembly and expression were severely curtailed during this process. These are sacrosanct values in democratic countries across Europe, they are the foundation of the European Union- how can we still discuss at all whether Turkey should be part of that since it clearly does not abide by these principles?!

Let’s also consider the referendum itself. The constitutional changes the Turks approved gives sweeping powers to the president, a role that was once simply formal. The separation of the three branches of government is virtually erased, the president now being granted with authority over legislative as well as judicial branches. There are no more checks and balances, as even the civil society organizations and the press were reduced to silence. The drastic constitutional changes were all lumped together, the ballot featuring just a yes/no option, instead of each measure being listed on the ballot. On the day of the referendum, as the citizens opposed to Erdogan and the changes showed up at the polls and courageously voted ‘NO’, the margin favorable to Erdogan began to shrink. He then instructed the election board to change the criteria for validation late in the day and to count even the ballots without official stampsAgain, another violation of the law and an underhanded maneuver by Erdogan to ensure a win.

Despite all the enormous effort and all the dirty tactics Erdogan used, he barely won- by less than 2 percent. A result which shows a country deeply divided. Especially over religious issues: Erdogan, a devout Muslim, and his followers want Islam to be a governing religion; he reinstated the hijab for women and, empowered by the referendum results, wants to bring back the death penalty. This is deeply against everything Europe stands for! The European voices which argue that by becoming a EU member Turkey will be pulled towards strong democratic values need to take a hard look at the way Turkish diaspora living in Europe voted: a majority of them voted ‘yes’ for Erdogan’s constitutional changes. Clearly, European democracy did not rub off on them.

A popular vote at the end of a very corrupt process does not make this a democratic referendum. With these changes, Turkey has moved even further away from Europe and it is beginning to look a lot like a traditional, fundamentalist Middle Eastern country, run by a strongman, an authoritarian. European leaders need to make the decision to stop accession talks with Turkey now. Sign the petition to encourage them to do just that!