Turkey’s Referendum & What it Means for the US by Evren Celik Wiltse
It would be rather unfortunate, if the dramatic regime change that is set in motion in Turkey goes unnoticed in the US, amidst North Korean missile tests and Europe’s electoral pains.
Recently, the ruling Justice & Development Party initiated an overhaul of Turkey’s political system by proposing 18 amendments to the Constitution. When implemented in 2019, the amendments will effectively terminate Turkey’s nearly a century and half long parliamentarian legacy in favor of a dominant executive.
The new political model grants extraordinary powers to a single, elected president. It is unlike any existing democratic presidential system. All credible constitutional law scholars in Turkey unanimously agree that the proposed system in Turkey has no effective checks and balances.
The European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) also expressed serious concerns about “letting the new President exercise executive power alone, with unsupervised authority to appoint and dismiss ministers, and to appoint and dismiss all high officials on the basis of criteria determined by him or her alone.”
Aside from sweeping appointment powers, the President maintains his/her party leadership position. This amendment effectively places all the parliamentarians from the President’s party at his/her disposal, and demotes the legislative branch to a rubber stamp.
The new system does not propose an independent judiciary either. The party leader/President directly or indirectly determines over 70 percent of the top judiciary. Furthermore, the amendments contain major loopholes on presidential term limits, and grant lifetime immunity to the president and his/her closest associates.
On April 16, millions of Turkish citizen dutifully went to the polls to vote. As they say, “the people have spoken”—or have they?
25.1 million Turkish voters approved the change while 23.7 million rejected it. The largest population centers, including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Adana, decidedly rejected the proposed changes. Those who approved super-presidentialism were mostly in smaller, less industrialized, less developed and more conservative provinces.
During the campaign process, the opposition had an uphill battle. They were systematically denied access to public platforms, media and faced jail. Yet, probably the most critical irregularity came after the ballot boxes were closed.
The election process in Turkey is highly regimented. It involves significant barriers to ensure the authenticity of the eligible voters, and each ballot. Because of concerns over integrity, Turkey neither has absentee ballots, nor electronic voting machines. Voters have to show up at the ballot box, and cast a paper ballot.
One of the most important mechanisms for electoral integrity is the official stamp: first one by the Supreme Election Council (SEC) and a second on the site, by a five to seven person ballot box committee. An official ballot needs both stamps in order to count. Article 103/1 of electoral law clearly states that votes without the “double stamped official envelope” are null and void.
In this referendum, as votes were being tallied up, the SEC decided to accept the envelopes without these official stamps. Without the stamps, there is no way to prevent ballot stuffing.
The SEC has not divulged how many compromised ballots were counted, but party observers put the number anywhere from 1 million to 2.5 million—enough to change the outcome.
The breach is unprecedented. For instance, in a mayoral election in 2014, results were challenged because only 250 envelopes were missing a stamp. At the time, the SEC considered this a major breach, and mayoral elections were repeated in that district.
Instead of repeating the referendum in compromised districts, Turkish government is desperately in search of Western approval for this mess. The first response came from the EU. Election monitors from the Organizations for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) issued a condemning report listing the irregularities. However, the US is yet to offer a firm response, other than a brief phone call from President Trump to congratulate President Erdogan.
Many argue that the US decision makers are holding back, because they need the Turkish bases and support in the fight against ISIS. Yet, the fact that Turkish government acts as a roadblock on ISIS should give enough cues about diverging priorities. Offering the cloak of legitimacy to such a compromised referendum would fuel a government that is increasingly at odds with its Western allies. It would also undermine the genuine democratic voices inside Turkey.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once said, “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither.” Here is an occasion to not repeat the same mistake.
Evren Celik Wiltse is Assistant Professor of Political Science at South Dakota State University.