The referendum in Turkey had a “significant imbalance” tilted toward supporters of sweeping constitutional changes, international observers said.
Both the campaign period and actual vote Sunday failed in numerous ways to live up to international standards for democratic practices, according to a preliminary report from the Organization for Security
and Co-operation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Their findings cast further doubt on the legitimacy of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s narrow victory in his bid to expand his executive power. Erdoğan claimed victory in the referendum Sunday with about 51.4 percent of the vote.
“We found that it fell short of full adherence” to international standards, said Tana de Zulueta, head of the OSCE’s referendum observation mission. She listed problems at almost every stage, starting with underlying legislation governing the vote to a last-minute move by the top election court to change ballot criteria in the middle of the vote on Sunday afternoon. Advocates of the No campaign were intimidated as part of a state of emergency declared after a coup attempt last summer, she said, prompting “widespread self-censorship.”
They also cited inappropriate use of administrative resources to support Erdoğan’s position and a lack of balanced information for voters to make informed choices.
Turkey’s main opposition party, known by its Turkish acronym CHP, has called for the results to be nullified, citing irregularities. Ballots were counted in secret for about 90 minutes on Sunday, CHP deputy chairman Bulent Tezcan told reporters, according to the Associated Press. Tezcan also said the electoral court’s midday ruling to accept ballots without the official stamp was “implemented at a moment when it was felt that the No votes were ahead of the Yes votes.”
A pro-Kurdish opposition party known as HDP said about 3 million voters were affected by the decision, enough to swing the election. According to Reuters, an HDP spokesman accused election officials of conducting a “coup.”
Erdoğan seemed to anticipate the criticism in his victory speech Sunday, in which he urged his opponents to “stop tiring themselves out.”
He added, “You saw how the West attacked. But despite this, the nation stood tall, didn’t get divided.”
Western leaders expressed unease throughout the day Monday. French President François Hollande, for example, said France “takes note” of the allegations of irregularities. The European Parliament’s
rapporteur for Turkey’s accession in the EU said membership talks will be formally suspended if the changes are enacted.
“Continuing totalk about Turkey’s integration into Europe under the current circumstances has become a farce,” MEP Kati Piri said on her website late Sunday.
Meanwhile, some Turkish leaders took steps to shore up perceptions abroad and project stability. In an interview with Bloomberg News, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek downplayed speculation that he might move up elections so Erdoğan could assume his new powers ahead of schedule. The new presidential power structure is set to come into force after the next election, and Şimşek reiterated Erdoğan’s pledge to hold that vote in November 2019, allowing for a transition.
Presenting their preliminary findings at a press conference in Ankara, the election observers would not directly assess whether the vote legitimately expressed the will of the people, or whether the shortcomings they observed affected the outcome.
But they offered little evidence for confidence. “Our first point is that this was indeed an unlevel playing field, and this in itself is turning away from commitments of access and impartiality,” De Zulueta said.