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OSCE issues a scathing verdict for Turkey referendum: ”did not live up to Council of Europe standards”

By Ela Gonca İzmirli

A very carefully worded OSCE statement says that the Turkish referendum was “contested on an uneven playing field” and fell short of international standards. Arguing that the voters were not given unbiased information and that the civil society organizations were not able to participate, the report said: “one side’s dominance in the coverage and restrictions on the media reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views.”

OSCE observers today, a day after referendum conducted a press briefing to respond questions as well.

Turkey has been under a state of emergency since the July 2016 coup attempt that restricted many fundamental freedoms required for a fair election. Referring to the state of emergency laws, OSCE observers noted that the election environment was negatively influenced by the ‘dismissal or detention’ of tens of thousands of citizens. Other than restricting many fundamental rights and freedoms, the state of emergency gave extraordinary powers to government officials, and in particular to provincial governors, who used these decisions to restrict freedom of assembly and speech, the report said.

According to the observers, for this referendum the voters in Turkey were not provided with unbiased information on each of the 18 proposed amendments and their potential impact. The decision to vote on all constitutional changes in a single YES/NO question instead of giving the voters opportunity to vote on each amendment -“contrary to international good practice for referenda”- limited the voters’ ability to make an informed decision about the changes to the constitution the observers concluded.

The media coverage of the referendum was dominated by the YES campaign. Some Turkish non-profits earlier this year reported the unequal time allotted for each campaign including the publicly owned media, which by law has to designate equal time to all political groups. The non-profits, civil society organizations and professional associations were not permitted to hold campaign events.

Misusing State Resources

The preliminary OSCE statement addressing these issues said that the local and national officers campaigned for YES and that they “observed the misuse of state resources, as well as the obstruction of ‘NO’ campaign events.” The report also said that the campaign rhetoric was “tarnished” by the state line equating voting NO with sympathizing with the terrorists.

OSCE: Unstamped Ballots Should Be Invalid

The observers also expressed concern about the late in the game decision of the Supreme Electoral Council (SBE) about counting the ballots without an official stamp. SBE appoints the members of the provincial election boards, district election boards, and ballot box committees. The parties that qualify can assign their own members of parliament, mayors, municipal councilmen and assembly councilmen as their representatives to sit on the board. However, “the work of the electoral boards lacked transparency – board sessions were closed for the public and observers, and only a limited number of decisions were published” said the report.

According to the Turkish electoral law each ballot needs to be stamped by ballot box committee right before it is handed to the voter.

Controversial Decision by Election Council Reverberates inside and outside of Turkey

After the counting started SBE announced that the votes without stamp will be counted which caused outrage both from the opposition party leaders, spokespersons and the electorate. Head of the PACE delegation Cezar Florin Preda said; “Late changes in counting procedures removed an important safeguard.” The opposition claims that there are 1.5 million votes without the official stamp. The difference between YES and NO votes is 1.3 million.

Supreme Electoral Council of Turkey consists of a president, six elected members of the Supreme Court of Appeals and five of the Council of State, most of which were replaced by the government following the election of November 1st, 2015. The OSCE report states that “since the last parliamentary election, eight SBE members were replaced, all chosen by newly appointed judges; five due to the expiry of their terms, and three are in custody.”

Since the coup attempt, ”a series of emergency decrees led to vast replacements at all levels of the referendum administrations” said the OSCE’s interim report issued a week before the referendum.

SBE, the discretionary authority in Turkey to ensure that the electoral principles and rules of the constitution are upheld, is the court of last resort about elections.

Even though the referendum day proceeded in an orderly and efficient manner “in general, the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards. The legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process,” Preda said.

The report mentioned that in some cases, access for ODIHR observers during the opening and voting in polling stations was either denied or limited and police presence was widely reported both in and outside polling stations.

Both opposing parties, the pro-Kurdish HDP and main opposition party in the parliament CHP are planning to ask for a recount.

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