OSCE: ‘Referendum Took Place On An Unlevel Playing Field’

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  • April 18, 2017
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Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has announced its preliminary findings and conclusions as to the referendum on the Constitutional Amendment Package held on Sunday (April 16).

Pointing out to the fact that the referendum took place under the State of Emergency and not under equal circumstances, OSCE noted that the dominant coverage of the “Yes” campaign on the media and that “restrictions on the media reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views”.

As to the Supreme Election Board’s (YSK) decision to consider the unsealed envelopes and ballot papers valid despite applicable law requiring the opposite, OSCE noted that the YSK has unlawfully removed “an important safeguard”.

The final version of the “Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions” report prepared with the cooperation of OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will be issued eight weeks after the completion of the referendum process.

Some highlights from the report are as follows:

Referendum took place on an unlevel playing field

* The 16 April constitutional referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities.

* Voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform, and civil society organizations were not able to participate.

Referendum held under the State of Emergency

* 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

* The dismissal or detention of thousands of citizens negatively affected the political environment.

* Fundamental rights and freedoms that are unduly circumscribed by the Constitution and related legislation were further restricted by extraordinary state of emergency powers, and in particular by provincial governor decisions to restrict freedom of assembly and expression.

* Emergency decrees that amended referendum-related legislation exceeded the exigencies of the state of emergency and were not subject to appeal.

* Freedom of expression was further curtailed under the state of emergency; the arrest of an unprecedented number of journalists and the surge of media outlet closures has led to widespread self-censorship. OSCE/ODIHR media monitoring results showed that the ‘Yes’ campaign dominated the media coverage.

Unequal coverage in media

* One side’s dominance in the coverage and restrictions on the media reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views.

* Three out of the five monitored television stations, including the public TRT1, favored the ‘Yes’ campaign. 62 The ‘Yes’ campaign featured prominently in both the public and private media, with 76 per cent of total airtime on television and 77.5 per cent of space in the press, predominantly positive in tone, whereas the ‘No’ campaign received only 23.5 per cent of total airtime and space, mostly neutral in tone.

* AKP was also given a preferential treatment with 33.5 per cent of total airtime/space, whereas CHP, MHP and HDP were clearly covered to a lesser extent with 19 per cent, 2.3 per cent and 0.6 per cent of total airtime/space respectively

18 amendments voted on as a single package

* The 18 proposed amendments affecting 72 articles of the constitution were voted on as a single package, contrary to international good practice for referenda.

* Voters did not have the opportunity to make a choice about each of the distinct issues featured in the amendments.

* None of the proposed amendments featured on the ballot; voters were simply asked to vote for a yes or no option
Those forced to flee their residence due to security threats

* More than 58 million voters were registered to vote, including over 2.9 million abroad. Voters were able to verify their entries in the voter lists and request changes.

* However, those who had to flee their residence in the provinces affected by security threats faced difficulties with their registration and International Referendum Observation Mission (IROM) observers were informed that some of them were not able to vote.

NGOs not permitted to hold campaign events

* Supreme Elections Board decided that civil society organizations and professional associations are not permitted to hold campaign events.

* Ten parties met the requirements to campaign. Two parties unsuccessfully appealed the decision that they were ineligible and one civil society initiative was unable to register as a party.

Imbalanced campaign, misuse of administrative resources

* The campaign framework was restrictive, and the campaign imbalanced due to the active involvement of the president and several leading national officials as well as many local public officials in the ‘Yes’ campaign.

* The OSCE/ODIHR LROM observed the obstruction of efforts of several parties and civil society organizations to support the ‘No’ campaign as well as the misuse of administrative resources.

Campaign rhetoric

* The campaign rhetoric was tarnished by a number of senior officials equating ‘No’ supporters with terrorist sympathizers.

* In numerous cases, ‘No’ supporters faced police interventions and violent scuffles at their events. These violations contravene OSCE commitments, Council of Europe standards and other international obligations regarding freedom and equality in the campaign.
Unsealed envelopes and ballot papers

* The Supreme Election Board during the referendum day issued two instructions to consider ballots improperly stamped by the Ballot box Committees and those without a Ballot box Committee control stamp as valid, the latter given after the counting of votes in some Ballot box Committees had commenced.

* These instructions undermined an important safeguard and contradicted the law that explicitly states that such ballots should be considered invalid.

* Supreme Election Board was unable to provide the number of ballots affected and stated that since party-nominated Ballot box Committee members signed the protocols the issue is closed; there is no opportunity for appealing the Supreme Election Board decision.

NGOs refrained from observation

* Following the attempted coup, 1,583 civil society organizations were dissolved, including at least three that supported observation efforts during the last elections.

* Some civil society organizations that were engaged in observation of past elections refrained from observation or significantly limited their efforts due to the overall political and security situation.

* The Supreme Election Board rejected accreditation requests from two civil society organizations.


* Click to read the full report

** Photograph: Ali Leylak / Doğan News Agency (DHA)