Erdogan’s Deviant Referendum Manipulations Likely to Undermine His Presidency
The irregularities in Turkey’s constitutional reform referendum were numerous and well documented says Conn Hallinan of Foreign Policy in Focus
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
In Turkey, the pro-Kurdish opposition, the People’s Democratic Party, HDP, has filed an appeal with the Election Board, asking them to annul the referendum that took place on Sunday. The referendum that passed with a narrow margin of 51 to 49, handed President Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers.
The HDP wants the Referendum annulled, saying there had been widespread violations in the way that the vote was conducted. Let’s take a look at Peoples’ Democratic Party, Deputy Chairperson Mithat Sancar, and what he had to say while filing the appeal.
MITHAT SANCAR: (Turkish)
TRANSLATOR: The main breach was the practice of open vote. We have very strong information and data, about the use of open vote, with the support of security forces and guidance of local authorities. When we examined the ballot boxes, we see that, particularly in Kurdish provinces and villages, the number of ballot boxes that contains yes votes, is a lie.
SHARMINI PERIES: There were also large-scale protests in many parts of the country, to launch their opposition to the results, and to challenge its fairness. Here’s what one of the protestors had to say.
TRANSLATOR: The result is definitely not right. There are two and a half million unstamped votes. The president of the High Electoral Board said this himself. We are in such a strange situation. They’re like a nightmare lingering on this country. We wait for them to leave. We will make them leave.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining us now, to analyze the results is Conn Hallinan. Conn is a retired journalism professor, and columnist for foreign policy in Focus. Thanks for joining us today, professor.
CONN HALLINAN: Good to be here.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, Professor Hallinan, even the OECD’s election observers have complained about media biases and other electoral irregularities. Professor Hallinan, how serious and credible are the challenges, that are being brought about, given the narrow margin of the victory?
CONN HALLINAN: Well, I think the election itself was deeply flawed from the beginning. The no vote campaign was sometimes actively… rallies were actively broken up. The people couldn’t get permits. Large numbers of the leadership of the no campaign are in prison right now, even though they’re members of parliament. So, the entire campaign was a very uneven field. So, that’s just sort of, begin things off, and things really reached a level that were almost absurd.
At one point, the Turkish Public Health agencies are running an anti-smoking campaign, and they had a pamphlet — large black cover that said ‘No’ on it; that is no, don’t smoke, no smoking. The government pulled that because they thought that might influence the no vote against the referendum.
As far as the events in the referendum itself, it does appear to be that there is very credible information that ballots were stuffed. There are all sorts of odd things. The Peoples’ Democratic Party in one of the provinces in the southeast, received 50% of the vote in the last election, and yet, the no vote got less than 1%. I don’t see how that’s possible, without some kind of fraud going on.
So, given that there are at least two and a half million votes that are being challenged — directly challenged — because of these rules, changed right in the middle of the election; that was more than the margin of victory. So, I don’t think, that maybe even the majority of Turks voted for this. Even if they did, again, I think you point out — that this is an extremely narrow victory.
Not that Erdogan treats narrow victories as narrow victories, but nevertheless, really a few challenges here. You could definitely overturn this referendum vote, which I really think was flawed from the very beginning.
SHARMINI PERIES: Professor Hallinan, give us some of the irregularities that people are complaining about, that we know for sure took place.
CONN HALLINAN: Well there are several levels of them. First of all, one of the things that they did, is normally when you vote, you need to have your ballot stamped; and that’s just the electoral rules. Well, the Electoral Commission suspended that in the middle, when the voting had already begun. And so, there were millions of ballots that were allowed by the Election Commission that didn’t have any stamps on them.
Now, there are also some videos, which appear to show — we don’t know for sure — because you don’t know exactly who shot the videos — that appear to be active ballot stuffing. One case in which there was a ballot box that was supposed to hold 360 ballots, you know, that is a precinct — and it’s 360 votes; and it had over 700 votes. So, where’d those votes come from? A lot of those votes are unstamped.
So, again, on lots of levels, and I think what’s surprising here, is that in spite of the fact that the government has a state of emergency, has certainly stacked the deck, loaded the dice for this election — even so, they barely won this vote. Now, that’s certainly an indication that people need to go back to the drawing boards, and really examine whether or not this particular shift, in the kind of government that Turkey has had, is really a good idea, or supported by enough Turks to make it viable.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Professor, Erdogan had been a popular president until recently, usually winning elections quite decisively. But this was not the case here. He actually lost some of the urban centers and ruling party strongholds. Is his credibility waning?
CONN HALLINAN: Well, I think one of the things that was certainly a backdrop to this election, is that Erdogan has built his reputation of the Justice and Development Party, on developing the economy. And particularly, developing the economy in regions in Turkey where it hasn’t been developed — that is in central Turkey, Anatolia, etc. — And what’s happened is, that the economy has gone downhill at this point. And it’s going downhill because of a very fundamental flaw that was built in to the economic engine that the Justice and Development Party created. And that was one that was based on internal construction — massive projects, etc.
Well, you can do that if you can get a lot of foreign money coming in cheap. But in 2013, Americans tightened up the money supply, interest rates rose, loans became more expensive to get. And then, Erdogan began a series of both internal policies and external policies, including the Syrian civil war, and support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, involvement in Iraq, fighting with the Russians, fighting with the Europeans, etc.
That had made foreign capital a little hesitant about stepping into what they see as an increasingly unstable situation. This is one of the reasons why the bonds now that the Turkish government sells, are considered by international lenders and finance operations, to be essentially junk bonds. So, I think that people have been looking at that. That has an effect. Unemployment is high, particularly among young people, it’s over 25% between the ages of 16 and 25. It’s kind of long-standing. Inflation is going up.
Things are really… the wheels are kind of, coming off of the economy. This was Erdogan’s strongpoint, and I think people are stepping back a little bit. And put that together with this ongoing state of emergency, and the fact that there are members of parliament who are in prison now, let alone the closing of over 150 media outlets, etc. I think there’s a certain weariness with Erdogan, and also a certain wariness, as to where things are going in the future.
Suddenly, the Justice and Development Party doesn’t look all-powerful, and doesn’t look like they can accomplish a lot of things, not to mention, the war with the Kurds in the southeast.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Erdogan tried to use last year’s coup attempt to further strengthen his rule. Since the coup took place, over 130,000 people have lost their jobs in government. And over 100,000 have been detained, and about 130 media outlets have been closed. There’s a greater grip on the media outlets that is airing, particularly news programs.
Given all of this, isn’t expanding executive powers even more of a problem, when it comes to the kind of centralized power he will have as a result of this referendum, and its implications on the democratic will of the people?
CONN HALLINAN: I think, that essentially this is… he is now, if this holds up, okay. If this holds up, he will be a more powerful executive than the American President. He’d probably be the most powerful executive — short of the Gulf monarchies in the Middle East — and certainly like, say for instance, Egypt.
And one of the things, you mentioned the fact that the coup really became, you know, a smoke screen — he has gone after essentially everybody who’s an opponent. And one of the ironies here is that he has accused the Peoples’ Democratic Party, and the Kurds, of being supporters of the coup, supporters of terrorism.
Well, of course, the coup, if it was led by the Gulenists — there were certainly a lot of Gulenists involved in it — those are the mortal enemies of the Kurds. The Gullinists are much more militantly anti-Kurdish, than the Justice and Development Party. After all, at one point, Erdogan did have negotiations going on with the Kurds, and showed a willingness to do that in the past.
So, I think also, not just internationally, but within Turkey, people are really seeing this post-coup crackdown as just an opportunity to dismantle much of the democracy that has been built up in Turkey over the years.
It’s not terribly dissimilar to what happened in the United States, after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That was used as an excuse to invade Afghanistan, invade Iraq, and also to limit a lot of basic civil liberties in the United States.
SHARMINI PERIES: And finally Professor, President Trump congratulated Erdogan very quickly upon announcing the results. What impact do you think this will have on the appeal that’s going on?
CONN HALLINAN: Well, I tend to… I would like to think that Turkey was in a place that if you presented enough evidence, that there was systematic and widespread fraud in the election, that the Election Commission would overturn it.
I don’t think that’s going to happen. I can’t imagine the Election Commission actually going against Erdogan, or for that matter him accepting it if they did. I do think the fact that Trump endorsed Erdogan’s referendum–
SHARMINI PERIES: The results.
CONN HALLINAN: I mean, I think that that gives him a certain amount of strength. Being endorsed by Donald Trump is very much a mixed bag. And I think that for all this talk that the United States makes about democracy, and what they said a couple of days ago in the UN about democracy, and things like that — you know, the contradiction of that is then Trump turns around and endorses Erdogan, and endorses the Egyptian leadership, etc.
I don’t think that’s going to play out very well. How it will play out within Turkey, I don’t know yet. It depends on where these demonstrations go, and how widespread the dissatisfaction with Erdogan is. And it could result in the overturn of the referendum, but I think that’s unlikely.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Professor Hallinan, I thank you so much for joining us today.
CONN HALLINAN: Any time. It was a pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.