Turkish Democracy and Its Discontents

Erdogan supporters celebrate at AKP headquarters, April 16, 2017. (Reuters photo: Alkis Konstantinidis)
Erdogan claims a great victory that expands his power, while observers charge widespread fraud.

‘We call on the authorities to launch a transparent investigation into these alleged irregularities,” said European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas after Turkey’s Sunday referendum to approve an “executive-style presidency” for Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He got more: extraordinary judicial powers and lifetime immunity. The polls resulted in 51.4 percent “Yes” against 48.6 percent “No” to approve the constitutional-amendment package, amid allegations of fraud and ballot-stuffing.

The referendum took place in a chaotic and oppressive political atmosphere far away from freedom of speech and free media. Invoking the notorious “state of emergency” rule, Erdogan had already started to crush his opponents and the free media after the December 2013 police operations targeting his son and his close circle for corruption and money laundering. His full-court press accelerated after the July 2016 coup attempt. Since then, 231 journalists have been put in prison, and many media outlets have been shut down, confiscated by the state, or forced to write or broadcast favorably. As a result, Erdogan now controls 95 percent of the media and keeps going after any journalists brave enough to criticize him.

And not only the media, but anyone who was deemed opposition, paid a hefty price. In present-day Turkey, particularly after the coup attempt, more than 150,000 government officers, including doctors, teachers, academics, judges, police and military officers, were fired from their jobs. Some 50,000 state employees were imprisoned, and 113,000 others were detained from a week to a month without any charges.

Thousands of private businesses have been shut down, and personal bank accounts confiscated. All these extreme measures under the “state of emergency” rule made sure that the opposition did not have a credible voice for the referendum. Voters were not aware of what they were voting for, apart from the “executive-style presidency being granted to Erdogan.” For example, many were not aware the Yes vote also meant extraordinary judicial powers and lifetime immunity for Erdogan. Seeing all these on site, Human Rights Watch Turkey director Emma Sinclair-Webb addressed the situation in a press release on Monday, stating that “the campaign took place in a climate of unprecedented political repression.”

The ruling party and Erdogan’s supporters also made sure the opposition could not carry out political campaigns for their causes. Many opposition rallies were canceled by the state, and many demonstrators were beaten. The media coverage of the No vote was less than 5 percent compared to the Yes vote. Additionally, the second major political opposition party (HDP) saw almost all its parliament members and local mayors arrested before the referendum. Not only were the HDP members restrained from campaigning, but they could not monitor the elections and voting irregularities, particularly in the south and east of Turkey, where there was an inexplicable surge of Kurdish Yes vote. Hence, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared the results questionable, claiming that it was not a free and fair election and the referendum took place on an unlevel playing field. According to the OSCE press release, “the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards.”

Myriad voting-fraud allegations have surfaced, often with cell-phone video recordings published in different social media mediums. The most serious allegation was that the Supreme Election Board (YSK) had accepted 1.5 million illegal “unstamped ballots” in contravention of the election law, a move clearly changed the outcome as almost all the unstamped ballots were reported to be Yes-stamped. The OSCE challenged this ruling, stating that “the [Turkish] Electoral Board issued late changes to rules which undermined safeguards, went against laws.” The YSK director, Sadi Guven, a judge, who oversees the elections with ultimate authority over the referendum, stated that he had to take this decision because of the immense pressure coming from AKP members. The main opposition party leader, Mr. Kilicdaroglu, officially declared that the CHP does not recognize the referendum results.

Moreover, the HDP claimed in a press statement that there was at least 4 percent manipulation in the outcome, citing irregularities in the south and east of Turkey, where many Kurdish Turks live. In fact, there was an unforeseen surge in the Yes vote coming from that region, where almost no political party representatives other than the AKP could monitor the vote casting and the ballot count due to the political oppressions cited. The level of voting fraud was better understood as the results were made public. For example, the results of the 60 ballot boxes counted in a neighborhood in Sanliurfa, a southern border city, surprised everybody with 13,067 Yes and 58 No votes. Later, it was revealed that only one person signed for all those Yes votes, a smoking gun.

A neighborhood in Sanliurfa, a southern border city, surprised everybody with 13,067 Yes and 58 No votes. Later, it was revealed that only one person signed for all those Yes votes.

Though Erdogan won the elections, he felt the need to call world leaders to get immediate validation of the results, which was unprecedented. Strangely enough, the first congratulations came from Hamas and some other Salafist terrorist groups.

These results are further polarizing Turkish people, with the referendum victory in question and half of the country opposing Erdogan. On the other hand,      Erdogan clearly knows that he cannot rule the country on democratic values unless he represses the opposition. It is expected that Turkey will continue its anti-Western rhetoric and continue to distance itself from the democratic values to be able to sustain this one-man rule.

All observers agree that Erdogan, in order to stay in power, will continue to radicalize his country. Recently, pro-Erdogan daily Yeni Safak’s editor-in-chief wrote that after Erdogan gets the referendum, a new era starts; “Turkey should stop fighting the Islamic State and arm itself with nuclear weapons.”

Some argue that Turkey currently is marching toward a Sunni version of the Iranian Islamic State, with elements from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism in front of the whole world through a rigged democratic process.

It is crucial that NATO decision-makers recognize that Turkey has become a threat to the region’s and the world’s security with these new constitutional amendments. The West has long been hesitant to counter Erdogan with his ill-intended policies and intentions. However, even today might be too late to reverse the course and protect innocent lives both in Turkey and abroad.

— Ahmet S. Yayla is an adjunct professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University. He formerly served as a professor and the chair of the sociology department at Harran University in Turkey. He also served as the chief of counterterrorism and operations department of the Turkish National Police in Sanliurfa between 2010 and 2013. He is the co-author of the newly released book ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @ahmetsyayla



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