The result of Turkey’s April 16 referendum handed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the right to expand his power practically without checks and balances. It granted him authority to control the parliament and judiciary and the power to rule Turkey by decree.
But the razor-thin victory of the “yes” campaign has been strongly objected to by a range of groups.
Opposition parties have accepted all of Erdoğan’s electoral victories since 2002. But this time they are saying that he rigged the referendum. International observers agree with them. And, for days, hundreds of thousands of people have been peacefully protesting in the streets.
For decades, the Council of Europe (CoE) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have been sending electoral observer mission groups to monitor elections in the country at Turkey’s invitation.
A preliminary report on the referendum from the joint mission by CoE and OSCE said:
our monitoring showed the ‘Yes’ campaign dominated the media coverage and this, along with restrictions on the media, the arrests of journalists and the closure of media outlets, reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views. Provincial governors used state-of-emergency powers to further restrict the freedom of assembly and expression.
In some cases, CoE and OSCE observers either had limited or no access to the opening up of polling stations and during voting. And police presence was widely reported both in and outside polling stations.
Last minute change
Irregularities weren’t just detected on the ground.
A 2010 law disallows unstamped ballots in unstamped envelopes to be counted as valid. But, at the request of Erdogan’s ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party), the Supreme Board of Elections (YSK) made a last-minute decision to allow this illegal practice.
Oddly, the YSK followed the law for votes from the Turkish diaspora, not accepting unstamped ballots and envelopes as valid.
In the 2014 local elections, the YSK cancelled and re-held elections in two towns because of unstamped votes as a result of the application by the ruling AKP.
CoE and OSCE observers noted that the last-minute decision by the YSK was illegal and lifted an important safeguard against fraud.
An Austrian member of the CoE observer mission stated that up to 2.5 million votes (about 6% of total votes) could have been manipulated in the referendum. CoE and OSCE monitors also said that Turkish authorities were not cooperating with efforts to investigate claims of possible electoral fraud.
The New York Times reported that over 170 members of the opposition were banned from participating as observers in the election. And that some international election observers were temporarily detained, preventing them from fully observing vote counts. It was also alleged that “no” votes were removed from ballot boxes and deposited in a building site in the same area of southern Turkey.
The pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has said it presented complaints about unstamped ballots affecting three million voters, more than twice the margin of Erdogan’s victory, to no avail.
And the party’s deputy chairman said the electoral board’s last-minute decision to allow unstamped ballots meant that it’s now impossible to determine how many invalid or fake votes may have been counted. He also said that some voters had been unable to cast their ballots in private.
Other HDP officials stated that some electors were given unsealed “yes” voted ballots by AKP members, asked to cast them and then return sealed ballots in exchange for money.
Election monitoring NGO No and Beyond found that in 961 ballot boxes, 100% of the ballots were “yes”. And in a third of these 961 boxes, 100% of eligible voters had cast votes. Both these occurrences are extremely unusual.
The NGO also said that in the town of Viranşehir, in the province Urfa, all the signatures of the voters were the same, suggesting that the same person signed them.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has asked the YSK to annul the referendum on the basis of fraudulent activities and its extralegal decision to allow unstamped ballots. Unsurprisingly, the YSK swiftly rejected the request.
The CHP will now take its case to the Turkish Constitutional Court. But it’s unlikely that the petition will see much success there either.
The court has been under Erdoğan’s control since he and his fellow Islamist colleague, former president Abdullah Gul, appointed AKP loyalists to the bench. Now it simply rubber stamps Erdoğan’s wishes.
Echoes from history
Electoral fraud is not new in Turkey.
The country had its first elections more than 170 years ago when the absolutist Sultan allowed local councils to hold elections to address local administrative issues in 1840.
The first Ottoman parliament was opened in 1876 but Sultan Abdulhamid the Second closed it down the following year until a coup in 1908 that brought secularist-nationalists to power.
They also did not like losing electoral power and, in the 1912 general elections, voters who tried to vote for the opposition candidates were beaten by supporters of the secularist-nationalists. In fact, the 1912 election is infamously called the “election with sticks”.
Even though the republic was established by the secularist nationalists in 1923, the one party-regime did not allow elections until 1946. When the second world war was over, Turkey – under threat of Soviet occupation – wanted to join the Western democratic pact, and so had to allow multi-party elections. But they were not ready to lose the elections.
Thus, there appeared to be a “open vote, hidden counting” rule in 1946, for starters. Under conditions of a party-state, the governor, head of district, mayor and provincial head of the ruling secularist-nationalist party – who were the same person – forced people to vote for the ruling party with the help of the security forces.
When the Republican Turkey had its first free elections in 1950, the ruling secularist-nationalist CHP lost power to the liberal secular Democrat Party (DP). Since then – and despite minor problems – none of the election results have been declared unacceptable by any of the contesting political parties.
The April 16 referendum was rather similar to the 1912 and 1946 general elections. This referendum is the first time in the democratic history of Turkey, which is a member of NATO, Council of Europe (CoE) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), that an election has been seen as illegitimate by not only domestic contenders, but by international observers as well.