Tomorrow, on Sunday, 16 April 2017, Turkish citizens are given the opportunity to vote in favour or against a volume of 18 constitutional amendments.
This referendum has been much anticipated both in Turkey and abroad, as considerable controversy surrounds not only the content and expected implications of the amendments, but also the conditions under which the "Evet" campaign in favour of the constitutional changes has unfolded.
The proposed amendments affect in the first place the role and competences of the President of the Republic. If approved, the President, who currently exercises a mainly ceremonial function, will become the head of government, replacing (after the next elections, due in 2019) the Prime Minister in this capacity. More specifically, among other things, the President will have the additional competence to appoint and dismiss Ministers, appoint a certain number of judges, and dissolve Parliament – while not being subject to parliamentary control in return, except by impeachment. At the same time, the President will be allowed to assume any function in his or her political party and thereby have direct influence over the legislature.
You may find a full overview of the legal text (in English) here.
For a legal evaluation, it is worthwhile to read the Opinion of the Venice Commission (European Commission for Democracy through Law, of the Council of Europe, to which Turkey is party).
For every democratic vote, and in particular for referenda on constitutional changes, it is essential that the best possible conditions for public deliberation and the formation of a national consensus be given. The constitution embodies the fundamental political rules of a society, and any such rule that is not based on a broad consensus is likely to perpetuate conflict rather than help solving it.
In Turkey, these "best possible conditions" were, and are, not given; instead they have sharply deteriorated over the past nine months.
Since the attempt of 15 July 2016 to illegally overthrow the democratically elected government of Turkey, the country has been under the state of emergency. In the wake of the government's reaction to the failed coup d'état, the necessary basis for open and consensus-oriented deliberation has gradually eroded. This concerns in particular:
- Coverage. On the – oftentimes arbitrary – accusation of support for terrorism, more than 150 media outlets have been forced to close, many of which were known for their critical stance on some or all of the government's activities. This has occurred largely without judicial review.
- Freedom of speech. In addition to closing media outlets, and on similarly arbitrary accusations, the Turkish government has jailed more journalists (and not only journalists) than any other country in the world. By December, at least 81 journalists were in prison in Turkey, and since then there have been almost weekly reports of new arrests.
- Freedom of assembly. Demonstrations that are not in favour of the government or the "Evet" campaign are routinely dispersed by security units, if necessary with disproportional use of force. Furthermore, as of January 2017, demonstrations in the capital, Ankara, are generally prohibited, as is the case in a number of other locations in Turkey.
- Conditions in Parliament. The parliamentary debate – which took place without a number of deputies of the oppositional HDP, who are held in custody on the same notorious charges of support for terrorism – lasted for only nine days, which is an excessively short amount of time considering the wide-reaching implications of the amendments in question. The final vote was held not only in the involuntary absence of 11 MPs, but also in violation of the constitution itself, which requires a secret ballot that was openly disrespected by the governing AKP's parliamentary majority.
- Intimidation. Unfortunately, violence has become an ever more common phenomenon in public life in Turkey over the past few years. Next to major terrorist attacks and the ongoing military campaign in the Kurdish-populated areas of Turkey, which have received sporadic international coverage, a wave of minor acts of violence has engulfed society, including, notably, a series of attacks against oppositional party offices. This is accompanied by an aggressive rhetoric denigrating supporters of the oppositional "Hayır" campaign as traitors, criminals, and supporters of terrorism, and by an increasing amount of publicly pronounced threats against them, especially on the internet, with the government doing nothing to de-escalate the situation.
Each of these developments in and of themselves, but especially their accumulation, have generated a climate that is absolutely poisonous for a consensus-oriented public debate, and, therefore, an environment that could hardly be less suitable for a constitutional referendum. It is to be feared that whichever the final decision turns out to be, the referendum and its outcome will be a source of further conflict.
On 1 March 2017, AEGEE Election Observation was invited by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to send an international mission to Turkey and observe the conduct of the referendum.
A democratic vote – be it an election or a referendum – is never an isolated event. While voting itself may take place on a single day, the event must be seen in the context of the entire electoral process. This includes aspects such as the legal framework, the security environment, campaign finance and the freedoms of assembly and speech (especially in the media context). All of these aspects are indispensable conditions for a free and fair voting process, and a government's failure to guarantee these conditions may substantially compromise the integrity of the vote and the legitimacy of its result.
In order to make a reliable assessment of the entire electoral process, what is required is long-term observation, deploying observers several months in advance to observe and report on the abovementioned conditions. This was done by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), who published their latest Interim Report on 7 April 2017.
AEGEE Election Observation does not currently have the capacity to conduct long-term observation itself. At the same time, short-term observers are usually deployed on the prerequisite that the general conditions for the vote itself are deemed free and fair.
Given the present conditions in Turkey as described above, AEGEE Election Observation does not see itself in the position to accept the HDP's invitation and send an international mission to observe the referendum.
On a side note, tomorrow, 16 April 2017, marks the 32nd anniversary of the foundation of AEGEE. After more than three decades promoting a democratic Europe without borders, and boasting a strong network in Turkey itself, we hope that the seed of cooperation and understanding that was sown by so many young Europeans over the past years may not be trampled into submission.
AEGEE Election Observation wishes all Turkish citizens, and especially all young Turkish citizens, a peaceful voting day and a future in which conflicts may be resolved by means of a dialogue that does justice to all parties affected.