Turkey votes over giving extreme powers to autocratic President Erdoğan amid voting frauds

More than 55 million Turkish citizens began voting across the country on Sunday in a historic referendum proposing constitutional changes, including giving extreme and unchecked executive powers to Turkey’s already autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan amid reports of alleged voting frauds.

A video that went viral on social media shows a person voting multiple ‘yes’ votes on ballots in a school in Şanlıurfa province, reported by Turkish Minute. The ballots seem authentic as envelopes with official stamps are seen next to ballots. In another social media post, supporters of Erdoğan are seen handing out ballot boxes outside polling stations. No explanation has yet been made regarding the nature of the incident.

Despite bans against sharing the photo of ballots, Erdoğan supporters take photos of their ‘yes’ votes and share them on social media. Upon complaint, a police officer’s vote was considered invalid in İstanbul’s Sarıyer district. No action has been taken against Şamil Tayyar, a Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy and a staunch Erdoğan supporter, who shared the photo of his vote on Twitter.

Nevertheless, at least 59 people were detained on Sunday for taking pictures of their ballots with their cell phones and sharing them on social media. Several civil servants in Turkey have been under pressure to prove that they voted ‘yes’ in order to avoid purge.

Citizens are casting their ballots at 167,000 polling stations nationwide. Over 1 million of them are first-time voters who recently turned 18. Inmates — except for the criminals who are convicted for intentional crime — are also allowed to vote at 463 polling stations located inside state prisons. Prisoners, who are jailed and pending trial, and who are convicted for negligent crime, can vote in the referendum.

Limited Referendum Observation Mission of OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR LROM) stated in an interim report on April 7 that supporters of the ‘No’ campaign in Turkey faced campaign bans, police interventions, and violent scuffles at their events.

According to interim report released by OSCE/ODIHR LROM over Turkey’s constitutional referendum, “the campaign is characterized by polarization and some restrictions.” The report underlined “The fact that a number of political leaders and activists remain behind bars has seriously curtailed some groups’ ability to campaign. As of now, in several cases, ‘No’ supporters have faced police interventions while campaigning; a number were also arrested on charges of insulting the president or organizing unlawful public events.”

Emphasizing on the fact that the constitutional referendum is taking place under a declared state of emergency, OSCE/ODIHR LROM stated that fundamental freedoms have been curtailed and thousands of citizens have been detained or dismissed, including civil servants, judges, journalists and opposition party members following the failed coup attempt in July 2016.

Reminding that the pro-Kurdish HDP’s campaign song, in the Kurdish language, was banned by authorities on the grounds it violated principles of integrity of state and Turkish as official language, OSCE/ODIHR LROM report has also highlighted that several senior politicians and civil servants, including the president, the prime minister and Antalya deputy public prosecutor equated the ‘No’ campaign or its voters with terrorist organizations or the attempted coup plotters.

The persecution of journalists, oppression over media and violations of freedom of the press in Turkey have also given a space in the interim report of OSCE/ODIHR LROM. According to the report, “the Constitution provides for the right to freedom of expression but permits undue restrictions in the Anti-Terrorism Law, Criminal Code, Press Law and other legislation. Furthermore, the Criminal Code contains broad defamation provisions, including with regard to the Turkish Nation and State, and provides special protection for public figures, including the president. The vague provisions can be used as grounds for the prosecution and imprisonment of journalists. Freedom of expression has been further curtailed by the closure of numerous media outlets and the arrest of journalists following the failed coup attempt as well as the legal framework for the state of emergency.”

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (RoFM) had also called on the authorities “to respect their obligations on freedom of the media,” and the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe asked the government “to reverse the numerous infringements of freedom of expression.”

The report has also reminded the fact that since the July 2016 events, a total of 158 media outlets have been closed, including 60 television and radio stations, 19 newspapers, 29 publishing houses and five press agencies, which the Venice Commission described a “mass liquidation of media outlets.” More than 150 journalists have been arrested during the state of emergency, and the majority said to still be detained. Further, according to the OSCE RoFM, “10,000 members of the media lost their jobs and thousands are currently awaiting trial for their critical tweets or other social media posts.”

Over 200 journalists were detained and subsequently arrested in the aftermath of failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.  Turkey is the worst jailer of journalists in the world. Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) has recently announced the number of journalists behind bars reached to a new record with currently 231 languishing in Turkish jails, most without a trial and convictions.

Of these journalists, 210 are arrested pending trial and without a conviction. Most of the journalists do not even know what the charges are or what evidence, if any, the government has because the indictments were not filed yet. Also 92 journalists are wanted and 839 have been charged in Turkey.

Moreover, drawing attentions to the role of the judiciary in the referendum OSCE/ODIHR LROM report stated that “The referendum is administered by four levels of electoral bodies: the Supreme Board of Elections (SBE), 81 Provincial Election Boards (PEBs), 1,080 District Election Boards (DEBs), and 174,512 Ballot Box Committees (BBCs)… 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. A series of emergency decrees led to vast replacements at all levels of the referendum administration: 9 PEB chairpersons were dismissed, and two placed in custody, 143 DEB chairpersons were dismissed, and 67 placed in custody. Over 500 electoral board staff were also placed in custody.”

OSCE/ODIHR LROM has also stressed in its interim report that, for the first time, the SBE took a decision that provided guidance for DEBs on applying the ‘good reputation’ requirement provided in the law for the selection of BBC members. In some of provinces in the southeast at least 140 chairpersons nominated by the HDP were dismissed due to alleged ‘bad reputation.’

President Erdoğan slammed the interim report of the OSCE/ODIHR LROM on the campaign environment for the referendum on whether to shift to an executive presidential system, declaring it “null and void,” on eve of referendum. “They say a ‘yes’ result would lead to problems. Know your place! You don’t have such a mission. You cannot talk about what would happen if the outcome is ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You cannot give such a report,” Erdoğan said at a rally in the Central Anatolian province of Konya. “Whether you give [a report] or not, this nation will do what is necessary on Sunday,” he added.

April 16, 2017


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