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International monitors deliver scathing verdict on Turkish referendum

Zeus 161 April 17, 2017
Turkish President declares victory
  • Referendum result exposes deep fault lines in Turkey
  • Erdogan vows to seek restoration of death penalty

Ankara (CNN)International election monitors have delivered a scathing verdict on the conduct of Turkey's controversial referendum to grant expansive new powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Representatives from a coalition of international bodies said the referendum took place on an "unlevel playing field" with the "yes" campaign dominating media coverage. Voters were not provided with adequate information, opposition voices were muzzled and the rules were changed at the last minute, they said.

"The legal framework remained inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic referendum," the monitors' initial report stated.

The monitors -- a partnership of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council for Europe -- will deliver their final report in eight weeks.

Opposition groups have vowed to challenge the outcome, as results indicated the narrowest of victories for the "yes" campaign.

Despite a state of emergency and a widespread crackdown on dissent, Erdogan succeeded in persuading only 51.4% of voters to back his constitutional upheaval.

The three biggest cities in Turkey -- Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir -- rejected the plans, which would abolish Turkey's system of parliamentary democracy and replace it with an executive presidency with sweeping, largely unchecked powers.

European governments acknowledged the result but bristled at a suggestion by Erdogan that he would seek the restoration of the death penalty -- a move that would sink Turkey's long-stalled bid to join the European Union.

The results cement a years-long effort by Erdogan to consolidate his position. After serving as prime minister for nearly a decade, he took over as president in 2014 and through force of personality turned a largely ceremonial role into a de facto head of government.

A failed coup last year allowed him to turn up the heat on opposition voices in the run-up to Sunday's referendum. The "no" campaign said it faced intimidation and threats of violence, while opposition figures and journalists were jailed. The narrowness of the result, coupled with allegations of irregularities, sets the scene for further instability.

Erdogan claims victory

Erdogan supporters wave flags near the AKP headquarters in Ankara.

"God willing, these results will be the beginning of a new era in our country," Erdogan said after his victory was clear on Sunday night.

"No one should have an offended or broken heart," said his prime minister, Binali Yildirim, whose post would be abolished under Erdogan's plan.

But the appeals for unity appeared likely to be in vain. The Republican People's Party (CHP) questioned the legitimacy of the result, saying the country's electoral authority had decided to "change the rules in the middle of the game."

The High Electoral Board at first said it would not accept ballots that were missing ballot commission stamps. But it announced a changed of course after voting was underway Sunday, saying it would accept unstamped ballots "unless they are proven to have been brought from outside."

That decision will likely form the basis for any official challenge. Bulent Tezcan, deputy chairman of the CHP, said his party would contest the result in Turkey's courts, and, if necessary, the European Court of Human Rights.

A supporter of the "yes" brandishes a picture of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Authorities said the decision to accept unstamped ballots was legitimate because it was taken before voting began. "We took this decision before one single vote was counted and registered into system. Therefore it is not right to question the decision," said Supreme Electoral Council President Sadi Guven. "The aim of the decision is to ensure that will of people reflected to the ballot box and to avoid a mistakes done by election committees."

Official results will be confirmed in about 10 days, after any objections have been considered, Guven said.

'Profound changes'

Once confirmed, moves could get underway to implement the 18-article reform package put forward by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

They include:

• Abolishing the post of prime minister and replacing it with a powerful executive president with powers to rule by decree.

• Giving the president the power to appoint a cabinet and some senior judges.

• Curbing the power of parliament to scrutinize legislation.

• Resetting term limits for president, meaning Erdogan could serve until 2029 if he wins elections in 2019 and 2024.

Erdogan indicated he would use his new powers to "immediately" pursue a referendum on the restoration of the death penalty in Turkey.

Ahmet Kasim Han, an associate professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said the result would "profoundly change the way the country is governed."

Critics of the proposals say they give overly broad powers to the president, Han said. Supporters of the "Yes" result argue the changes are justified given the "existential threat" on the country's southern borders with Iraq and Syria, along with last summer's attempted coup, he added.

Caution from Europe

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the result showed that "Turkish society is deeply divided" and called for the Turkish government to engage in "respectful dialogue" with all political entities. In a joint statement with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, she called on the Turkish government to "address concerns" about the voting process.

The office of the French President, Francois Hollande, warned that any referendum in Turkey on the reinstatement of the death penalty would constitute a break with EU values and commitments.

The EU reacted with caution. "We are awaiting the assessment of the OSCE/ODIHR International Observation Mission, also with regard to alleged irregularities," a statement issued by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker and other ranking officials said.

"The constitutional amendments, and especially their practical implementation, will be assessed in light of Turkey's obligations as a European Union candidate country."

The Council of Europe, a human rights organization which promotes European values and of which Turkey is a member, said the tight vote meant the country would have to proceed with caution.

"In view of the close result the Turkish leadership should consider the next steps carefully," said the statement from Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland.

"It is of utmost importance to secure the independence of the judiciary in line with the principle of rule of law enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a full member, stands ready to support the country in this process," the statement said.

Joy and despair

As the results came in, thousands of the president's supporters converged at the Ankara headquarters of the AKP, which Ergodan founded.

Waving flags they shouted, "Tell us to kill, we will kill. Tell us to die, we will die. Erdogan, Erdogan, Erdogan."

Aysel Can, a member of the AKP's women's branch, said, "For a strong Islamic state, for a strong Middle East, Turkey had to switch to this executive presidency system. This is a message to the world to shut up; Turkey is getting stronger. America has to know this, too. We are the voice, we are the ears, we are everything for the Middle East."

But there were just as many who were devastated by the result. "I'm sad, I cried all night," one "no" voter told CNN, who like many preferred not to give their name for fear of retribution. "It's really sad that had to do this voting, even. In 15 years we saw that radical Islam has come to power and we've ended up with (this) dictatorship."

CNN's Kara Fox, Eliott C. McLaughlin, James Masters, Hande Atay Alam and Deborah Bloom contributed to this report.

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