WASHINGTON – A narrowly won vote Sunday in Turkey to replace the current parliamentary system with a strong executive presidency fell short of a genuine democratic process, international observers said Monday.
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the referendum —passed with 51.4 percent of the vote — was contested on an unlevel playing field with both sides of the campaign not having equal opportunities to have their message heard.
OSCE argued that under the state of emergency put in place after the July 2016 failed coup attempt, fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed. Certain civil society organizations were not able to participate, the group 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,” Tana de Zulueta, head of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights within OSCE, said in a statement.
OSCE said that while the technical aspects of the voting process were “well administered,” last minute changes to in vote counting procedures removed an integrity safeguard and the changes were challenged by the opposition.
OSCE also criticized the decision to bundle the 18 proposed amendments to the Turkish constitution, instead of listing them separately on the ballot. Voters weren’t given descriptions of the proposed amendments either, but presented with a singular “yes” or “no” option.
With the majority of voters checking “yes,” the change to the constitution will allow the winner of the 2019 presidential election to assume full control of the government, ending the parliamentary political system.
It also gives the president the power to appoint a cabinet and some senior judges, who are responsible for reviewing his or her decisions; allows the president to order reviews into any of Turkey’s civil servants; and limits the president to two five-year terms.
The term limit amendment would reset the current system when the referendum went into effect, possibly allowing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to remain in office as late as 2029.
Erdogan responded to the report Monday by telling the European observers to “know your place.”
“We neither see, hear, nor know those politically motivated reports that you will draft,” he said before a rally of supporters in Ankara, according to The Middle East Eye.
The vote is another step in Erdogan’s tightening control over the country. Erdogan has acted as the head of government since his election in 2014, despite a lack of constitutional authority.
It comes as Turkey faces the Syrian civil war to its south, terrorism from both ISIS and an ethnic Kurdish insurgency known as the PKK and mass migration as people travel through the country up into Europe.
Advocates for “yes” have said the concentration of power would allow Turkey to better cope with the myriad of hardships it faces, while opponents argued this could also result in disaster and the end to Turkey’s pursuit for unison with the West.
Turkey is a NATO ally and a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS. The vote is likely to diminish any outstanding hope for Turkey’s long-stalled bid to join the European Union.