The Turkish referendum on presidential powers took place on an “unlevel playing field” and in a political environment where “fundamental freedoms” were curtailed, European observers of the campaign and voting day have said.
Though the observer mission said the voting proceeded in a largely orderly fashion on Sunday, it criticised a last-minute controversial decision by the country’s election board to count unstamped ballots as being against the law and lifting an “important safeguard” against fraud.
They also said the restrictions on media outlets and arrests of journalists ensured the yes campaign backed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling party received the lion’s share of coverage, tilting the odds in their favour.
“The 16 April constitutional referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities,” said the preliminary report of the mission, a combined effort of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace) and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
“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.”
Voters narrowly approved on Sunday a raft of constitutional amendments that will grant sweeping new powers to Erdoğan, arguably one of the most significant developments in the republic’s history since its founding after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.
Erdoğan declared victory on Sunday night after a nail-biting contest with more than 80% voter turnout, though opposition parties have said they will contest the result of the poll and the Republican People’s party, the largest bloc in the opposition, said on Monday it wanted the result annulled.
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A key challenge rests on the High Election Board’s decision late in the day to count unstamped ballots, which would have been invalidated in past elections, and which totalled about 1.5 million votes. The yes campaign was ahead by just 1.1 million votes by the end of the count.
The race was marred by divisive rhetoric, with the government equating no voters with terrorist groups and the opposition accusing the ruling party of seeking to install a dictatorship.
The victory of the yes campaign will consolidate Erdoğan’s power, allowing him to run for two more election terms and potentially stay in power until 2029. It will also him an influential status on a par with the state’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Erdoğan will be able to return to the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development party, granting him oversight over who will run for parliament as well as greater influence in the choice of judges in the highest court in the country.
Reactions to the result on Monday were muted from Turkey’s European partners and the ruling party. It was a reflection of the president’s narrow mandate and the fact that he lost the vote in the three biggest cities, Istanbul, İzmir and Ankara.
European leaders said the result showed the deep splits in Turkish society.
“The German government … respects the right of Turkish citizens to decide on their own constitutional order,” the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her foreign minister said. “The tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is and that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdoğan personally.”
The French president, François Hollande, said the results “show that Turkish society is divided about the planned deep reforms”.
Erdoğan said in his victory speech that he could hold a referendum on the reintroduction of the death penalty, a prospect that would extinguish a decades-long effort by Ankara to join the European Union.
In the run-up to the vote there was a political row between Turkey and EU member states who banned political rallies by government ministers, with Erdoğan accusing them of fascist tendencies.
The referendum took place against a backdrop of tension. The government has dismissed tens of thousands of civil servants, judges, prosecutors, academics, military and police officers, in addition to arresting dozens of journalists and closing media outlets over allegations of fomenting terrorist propaganda.
Many of those dismissed have been accused of membership or sympathising with the movement of Fethullah Gülen, an exiled preacher whose followers allegedly organised a coup attempt last July that killed 265 people and wounded hundreds more.
“We are here because Turkey is a European country,” said Cezar Preda, the head of the Pace delegation to observe the referendum, adding that it was committed to Turkey’s future as part of Europe. “It is not dependent on us alone but also on Turkey’s actions.”