“Massive Electoral Fraud” in Turkey's Referendum

04/17/2017 08:00 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2017

A Turkish election analyst wrote a private email describing “massive electoral fraud” in Turkey’s referendum yesterday. It is no surprise that followers of President Tayyip Erdogan rigged the vote. It is surprising, however, that his “yes” campaign only received 51.3 percent of the vote.

International monitors, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe (COE), issued scathing reports on the referendum to create an executive presidency and eliminate checks and balances.

The referendum occurred in a climate of fear. Under Turkey’s current state of emergency, Erdogan arrested 45,000 oppositionists and dismissed 130,000 civil servants. Purges negatively affected the political environment. “No” campaigners were threatened and called “terrorist sympathizers.”

According to OSCE media monitors, the “yes” campaign dominated the state-run media. Intimidation led to widespread self-censorship. About 150 journalists are in jail, more than any other country, and about 160 media outlets were shut down.

Kurdish voters were disenfranchised. Approximately 500,000 Kurds in the Southeast are displaced and homeless as a result of attacks by Turkey’s security services. They were ineligible to vote because they could not register at an address.

The Turkish government jailed 13 Kurdish members of parliament on terrorism charges and took direct control of 82 Kurdish municipalities, incarcerating elected mayors. As many as 5,000 local Kurdish activists were also arrested.

The COE said the “legal framework was inadequate for a genuinely democratic referendum.” It criticized the misuse of state resources in favor of the “yes” campaign, as well as the active involvement of the president and senior officials.

The Supreme Electoral Council, controlled by Erdogan appointees, abruptly changed the legal criteria for certifying ballots on election day, removing an important safeguard against voter fraud.

A leading opposition party will challenge 37 percent of the ballots, which were improperly sealed and uncertified. Its appeal is unlikely to find recourse. Qualified judges have already been replaced with party loyalists.

Voting lacked transparency. International and non-partisan domestic election monitors were denied permission to conduct effective monitoring in violation of best practices adopted by the OSCE, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, and the Venice Commission.

Eighteen constitutional reforms were presented as a package. On the ballot, voters did not have the option of voting on each distinct amendment, which is standard international practice.

Police and local officials denied “no” campaigners access to public facilities and permits to rally. The presence of police was widespread inside the voting stations and outside. Police were checking identification cards, which deterred “no” voters. There were violent scuffles at several polling stations.

Reports of voter suppression are not surprising. Erdogan organized a sham ballot, using tactics familiar among dictators. The authorities manipulated both the casting and counting of ballots. Erdogan quickly declared victory, creating a fait accomplis.

The referendum marks the death of Turkish democracy. Erdogan endorsed the death penalty, signaling the demise of Turkey’s EU candidacy.

If NATO was being formed today, Turkey would not qualify as a member because it is Islamist, undemocratic, and anti-American.

What effect will the sham referendum have on US-Turkey relations?

Turkey wants the Trump administration to endorse the referendum’s result. Turkey has a formidable advocacy machine. It lavishes contracts on lobbyists. It uses surrogates to fund political campaigns. It throws money at think-tanks and influence peddlers like Michael Flynn and Rudy Giuliani.

Turkey’s hired hands emphasize Turkey as an indispensable security partner, ignoring its well-documented support for jihadists including ISIS. Turkey is at best an uncertain ally. Pentagon planners should diversify air combat operations. Alternatives to Incirlik Air Force base exist in Cyprus, Jordan Kuwait, and Iraqi Kurdistan.

If the US is serious about defeating ISIS in Syria, it should increase support for Syrian Kurds in the Battle for Raqqa. It will also work with Syrian Kurds to enforce a safe zone on the Turkish-Syrian border. Additionally, the US should formalize its security cooperation with Syrian Kurds who comprise a majority of Syrian Defense Forces.

Prosecutors should proceed with zeal to try Reza Zarrab, who holds secrets about Erdogan’s corruption including a systematic effort to evade US sanctions by laundering funds for Iran. In phone intercepts on December 17, 2013, Erdogan is heard conspiring with his son, Bilal, to evade a police investigation by disposing of tens of millions of dollars.

The Trump administration should take Turkey to task, joining other countries and international organizations. Failing to do so will cause long-term damage to US-Turkey relations.

While most international monitors have scathing criticism of the referendum, the EU used diplomatic language, urging Erdogan to move slowly. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel called for “respectful dialog with all the country’s political and societal groups.” The EU’s criticism comes with Erdogan holding Europe hostage, threatening to release a flood of refugees.

Erdogan rejects criticism, insisting that Turkey will ignore international monitors. “Know your place,” he said. “We won't see or hear the politically motivated reports you prepare.” His supporters rallied in the streets chanting: “Tell us to kill; we will kill. Tell us to die; we will die.”

Turkey is deeply divided and in crisis. Peace and stability hangs in precarious balance.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Experts at the State Department under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.

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