ANKARA, 17 April 2017 – The 16 April constitutional referendum in Turkey was contested on an unlevel playing field, and the two sides in the campaign did not have equal opportunities, the international observers concluded in a statement released today. While the technical aspects of the process were well administered, voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform, and limitations on fundamental freedoms had a negative effect, the statement says.
“On referendum day there were no major problems, except in some regions, however we can only regret the absence of civil society observers in polling stations,” said Cezar Florin Preda, Head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. “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.”
“The referendum took place in a political environment in which fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed under the state of emergency, and the two sides did not have equal opportunities to make their case to the voters,” said Tana de Zulueta, Head of the ODIHR limited election observation mission. “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.”
Although the Supreme Board of Elections (SBE) adopted regulations and instructions to address some aspects of the process, the legal framework, which is focused on elections, remained inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic referendum, the observers said. Provincial governors used state-of-emergency powers to further restrict the freedom of assembly and expression.
“A state of emergency should never be used to undermine the rule of law,” Preda said.
The legal framework for the referendum neither sufficiently provides for impartial coverage nor guarantees eligible political parties equal access to public media, and gives preference to the ruling party and the president in the allocation of free airtime, while the SBE’s authority to sanction for biased coverage was repealed, the statement says.
The law limits full participation in the referendum to eligible political parties and does not regulate the involvement of other stakeholders, the statement says. Further, the SBE decided that civil society organizations and professional associations were not permitted to hold campaign events.
“The campaign framework was restrictive and the campaign imbalanced due to the active involvement of several leading national officials, as well as many local public officials, in the ‘Yes’ campaign,” de Zulueta said. “We observed the misuse of state resources, as well as the obstruction of ‘No’ campaign events. The campaign rhetoric was tarnished by some senior officials equating ‘No’ supporters with terrorist sympathizers, and in numerous cases ‘No’ supporters faced police interventions and violent scuffles at their events.”
Referendum day proceeded in an orderly and efficient manner in the limited number of polling stations visited by international observers. In some cases, access for ODIHR observers during the opening and voting in polling stations was either denied or limited. Police presence was widely reported both in and outside polling station and, in some cases, police were checking voters’ identification documents before granting access to the polls. The SBE issued instructions late in the day that significantly changed the ballot validity criteria, undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law.