Turkey’s Referendum: Free and Fair?

04/14/2017 11:52 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2017

Turks will vote on Sunday in a referendum to amend the constitution, and establish an executive presidency, eliminating checks and balances. The referendum will change the way Turkey is governed, establishing one-man rule and transforming Turkey into a dictatorship.

There are two ways to rig an election: obstruct your opponent’s campaign, or stuff the ballot box.

President Tayyip Erdogan has blatantly used his office to enhance the “yes” vote, while limiting the “no” campaign.

Turkey limits press freedom. It has more journalists in jail than any country in the world. As many as 150 journalists, one-third of the total jailed worldwide, are imprisoned. More than 160 media outlets have been closed.

Under statutes like Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Act and Article 301 of the Penal Code, journalists are jailed for insulting public officials or crimes against the state. Erdogan refers to imprisoned journalists as “terrorists, child molesters, and murderers.”

In addition to physical threats, the government exerts financial pressure. For example, the Dogan Group, which owns Hurriyet and CNN Turk, was penalized $3.2 billion in tax arrears.

“No” opponents of the referendum suffer coercion, harassment, and arrest under emergency provisions adopted after the coup on July 15, 2016. More than 40,000 people were arrested and 100,000 people dismissed from state institutions such as the judiciary, military, and security forces.

“No” campaigners are targeted by the police and local government officials. They are denied permission to hold rallies. Their access to public facilities has been limited.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is targeted to undermine its capacity as an effective opposition. The government jailed 13 HDP members of parliament on terrorism charges, including co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag. The government seized 82 municipalities in the Southeast, incarcerating elected mayors. More than 5,000 HDP party officials, including heads of provincial and district branches have been detained.

Erdogan launched military attacks against Kurds, killing at least 2,000 civilians. Half a dozen cities were attacked; Cizre was completely destroyed.

Erdogan challenged European leaders to rally his nationalist base. When Germany refused to allow a campaign rally, citing security concerns, Erdogan accused the German government of “Nazi measures.” When the Dutch government refused landing rights to Turkey’s foreign minister for similar reasons, Erdogan described it as “Nazi remnants and fascists.” Erdogan also threatened to cancel the EU-Turkey deal on migrants.

Erdogan has been campaigning furiously. Consolidating his executive powers is a life-long ambition. Public opinion surveys indicate the outcome is too close to call.

Will Erdogan allow defeat?

After the votes are tallied, presumably in favor of amending the constitution, Erdogan will appeal to the United States and the international community to accept the “will of the Turkish people.”

The Trump administration should be circumspect in endorsing a “yes” vote. It must not be complicit in Turkey’s referendum, which betrays democracy and deepens Erdogan’s dictatorship.

David L. 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 Expert at the State Department under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His new book is An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.

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