The Turkish referendum on presidential powers took place on an “unlevel playing field” and in a political environment where fundamental freedoms were curtailed, European observers have said.
The observer mission said voting had proceeded in a largely orderly fashion on Sunday, but it criticised a controversial last-minute decision by the country’s election board to count unstamped ballots as illegal and lifting an important safeguard against fraud.
They also said the restrictions on media outlets and arrests of journalists ensured the yes campaign backed by the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the ruling party received the lion’s share of coverage, tilting the odds in their favour.
“The 16 April constitutional referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities,” said the preliminary report of the mission, a combined effort of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace) and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
“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.”
Voters narrowly approved constitutional amendments that will grant sweeping new powers to Erdoğan, arguably one of the most significant developments in the republic’s history since its founding after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.
Erdoğan declared victory on Sunday night after a contest in which more than 80% voters turned out. Opposition parties, however, have said they will contest the result and the Republican People’s party, the largest bloc in the opposition, said on Monday it wanted the result annulled.
A key challenge rests on the election board’s decision late in the day to count unstamped ballots, which would have been invalidated in past elections, and which accounted for about 1.5 million votes. The yes campaign was ahead by 1.1 million votes by the end of the count.
The race was marred by divisive rhetoric, with the government equating no voters with terrorist groups and the opposition accusing the ruling party of seeking to install a dictatorship.
The victory of the yes campaign will consolidate Erdoğan’s power, allowing him to run for two more election terms and potentially stay in power until 2029. It will also grant him influential status on a par with the state’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Erdoğan will be able to return to the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development party, granting him oversight over who will run for parliament and greater influence in the choice of judges in the country’s highest court.
Reactions to the result were muted from Turkey’s European partners and the ruling party on Monday. It was a reflection of the president’s narrow mandate and the fact that he lost the vote in the three biggest cities, Istanbul, İzmir and Ankara.
European leaders said the result showed the deep splits in Turkish society.
“The German government … respects the right of Turkish citizens to decide on their own constitutional order,” the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her foreign minister said. “The tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is and that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdoğan personally.”
The French president, François Hollande, echoed their sentiments.
Erdoğan said in his victory speech that he could hold a referendum on reintroducting of the death penalty, a prospect that would extinguish Ankara’s effort to join the European Union.
He criticised foreign powers again on Monday, while he was being greeted by crowds in Ankara after flying to the capital from Istanbul.
Anger at perceived foreign meddling in Turkey’s internal politics has been a key flashpoint ahead of the referendum, and many AKP voters have signalled in pre-referendum interviews that they were voting for the amendments because they wanted a president who was assertive on the world stage and could stand up to western powers.
“The crusader mentality in the west and its servants at home have attacked us,” Erdoğan said. “We did not give in. We did not give up. As a nation we stood strong.”
In the run-up to the vote there was a political row between Turkey and EU member states who banned political rallies by government ministers, with Erdoğan accusing them of fascist tendencies.
The referendum took place against a backdrop of tension. The government has dismissed tens of thousands of civil servants, judges, prosecutors, academics and members of the security forces, arrested dozens of journalists and closed media outlets over allegations of fomenting terrorist propaganda.
Many of those dismissed have been accused of membership or sympathy with the movement of Fethullah Gülen, an exiled preacher whose followers Erdoğan has accused of organising a coup attempt last July in which 265 people died.
“We are here because Turkey is a European country,” said Cezar Preda, the head of the Pace delegation, adding that it was committed to Turkey’s future as part of Europe. “It is not dependent on us alone but also on Turkey’s actions.”