International election observers have delivered a scathing verdict on the Turkish referendum, saying the contest was an “unlevel playing field” and Turkey’s election committee broke the law with last-minute changes to voting rules.
Hours after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed a narrow victory in the referendum that will give him sweeping new powers, a team from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said bluntly that the vote had not been fair.
“The 16 April constitutional referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities,” the OSCE said in a statement.
The OSCE has no power to impose sanctions or force a re-run of the vote but its findings will likely embolden the Turkish opposition, which called for the results to be voided because of alleged voting irregularities.
Mr Erdoğan dismissed the OSCE criticisms and told the observers to "know your place". He vowed he would forge ahead with plans to reshape Turkey’s constitution.
"We will continue down our road," he said. "This country held the most democratic elections that have never been seen in any other country in the West."
Both the opposition and the OSCE focused on a decision taken on Sunday by the High Electoral Board - announced while voting was underway - to accept ballots that had not been officially stamped.
The OSCE said the decision broke Turksh election law. The board "issued instructions late in the day that significantly changed the ballot validity criteria, undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law," the OSCE said.
Opposition parties said that 1.5 million unstamped ballots had been illegally counted - enough to swing an election that had been decided by about 1.38 million votes, according to state news agency figures.
Bulent Tezcan, deputy chairman of the CHP, said there is "only one way to end the discussions about the vote's legitimacy and to put the people at ease, and that is for the High Electoral Board to cancel the vote."
The OSCE also said the No campaign had faced been starved of coverage by the state-run media and faced violence from police and Yes supporters.
The observers also criticised Mr Erdoğan’s own fiery language during the campaign, saying: “The campaign rhetoric was tarnished by a number of senior officials equating No supporters with terrorist sympathisers.”
Turkey’s foreign ministry immediately hit back, calling the OSCE criticism “unacceptable” and saying the observer mission arrived in Turkey “with prejudices and ignored the principles of objectivity and neutrality."
The Foreign Office said it was "concerned" by the OSCE's findings on how the vote was run.
Mr Erdoğan has already claimed victory in the referendum after the state news agency said his Yes camp won 51 per cent of the vote and the electoral board officially certified him as the winner.
Sadi Guven, the board’s chair, defended the decision on Monday and said the board would not back down. "The ballot papers are not fake, there is no reason for doubt," he said. Mr Guven added that similar decisions had been made in the past and that the board reached its decision before vote counting started.
The opposition is expected to file objections to the results at local electoral boards and then attempt to bring their case before the High Electoral Board.
Mr Erdogan has pledged to move forward with plans to reinstate the death penalty in Turkey
Turkey's government meanwhile extended its state of emergency for another three months. The emergency laws, which give authorities broad power to detain people, have been in place since a failed coup attempt last July.
Mehmet Simsek, the deputy prime minister, said the Yes camp had “won clearly” and urged the country to move forward.
He also struck a conciliatory note towards the EU after Mr Erdoğan accused European leaders of behaving like “Nazis” during the referendum campaign.
The EU is an important trade partner to us, there are no other markets to sell the goods that we sell to the EU,” he told Bloomberg. “From this day our relationship with the EU will depend on mutual benefits.
Mr Erdoğan claimed victory in a low-key speech in Istanbul on Sunday night and is expected to hold a cabinet meeting in the capital Ankara on Monday, according to CNN Turk.
On the agenda will be Mr Erdoğan’s plans to potentially restore the death penalty in Turkey.
If he goes ahead with the plan it would end any lingering chance of Turkey joining the EU as the European bloc forbids capital punishment and will not accept any new members that have the death penalty on their statute books.
The EU offered a muted reaction to the results on Sunday, saying it took “note of the reported results” but was waiting for the report from international observers “with regard to alleged irregularities”.
“In view of the close referendum result and the far-reaching implications of the constitutional amendments, we also call on the Turkish authorities to seek the broadest possible national consensus in their implementation,” said the statement from European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs chief.
The reaction of the Trump administration will be critical as Mr Erdoğan looks to solidify his victory with international recognition. The US State Department has not commented on the results.
The White House is treading carefully with Turkey as it needs Turkish support in the fight against the Islamic State (Isil) in Syria but must balance Ankara’s demands against those of America’s Kurdish allies.
Quite a large crowd has gathered in Kadikoy now, one of Istanbul's most liberal neighborhoods pic.twitter.com/SsGLX7FWvq— Raf Sanchez (@rafsanchez) April 16, 2017
Mr Erdoğan’s supporters took to the streets in celebration after the results were announced, with many chanting his name and waving Yes flags.
But crowds of No voters also gathered on Sunday night and banged pots and pans in anger at what they say was an unfair result.
“You can see on social media the shenanigans and the vote stealing that went on,” said Yakup Yeldiz, a 21-year-old student. “The High Electoral Board has acted like this is a coup.”
But he predicted there would not be widespread protests against the result, especially in light of the state of emergency which was declared after last year’s failed coup attempt, which gives police widespread powers to detain people.
“When people on the Right are angry they reach for weapons. When people on the Left are angry they reach for pots and pans,” he said.