The Trump administration welcomed the results of a constitutional referendum granting Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vast new powers hours after a harsh verdict on the fairness and transparency of the vote by a major international organization.
In contrast, the European Commission on Tuesday called for investigations into alleged irregularities in the referendum citing reports from election observers. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the vote on drastic constitutional changes and the campaign that preceded it at the invitation of the Turkish government, concluded in its preliminary assessment that the referendum took place in an environment of unfairness that failed to fully measure up to international standards.
“Our first assessment was this was indeed an unlevel playing field and a turning away from standards of impartiality and fairness,” OSCE mission chief Tana de Zulueta told reporters Monday at the Ankara press conference where the report was released.
Later Monday, the White House reported that US President Donald Trump had called Erdogan to "congratulate him on his recent referendum victory." The two leaders also spoke out their joint efforts in the war against ISIS and the recent alleged use of chemicals weapons by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, underscoring Turkey's importance to US security interests. Critics worry that Trump will overlook the authoritarian tendencies of US allies such as Turkey and Egypt to focus solely on security and counterterrorism matters.
In a speech delivered in Ankara after the OSCE report was issued, Erdogan indicated he would ignore the report. "There is an organization in Europe called OSCE," he said. "They prepare a report according to their own minds. 'The election is like this. The election is like that.' First of all, don't be out of line. We don't see or hear or know about your political report. We keep going our own way. Not a single European country had such a democratic election."
Turkish voters approved on Sunday the raft of new measures by 51.4%, amid high voter turnout and opposition allegations of unfairness. The OSCE report took Turkish authorities to task for what it described as a highly imbalanced media environment that favored Erdogan’s “yes” camp, the use of state resources to promote the “yes” position, press restrictions on opposition and political arrests, and harassment of opponents ahead of the vote to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system of governance.
“One side’s dominance in the coverage and restrictions on the media reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views,” said the report. “The state did not ensure that voters were provided with impartial or balanced information on the amendments and their potential impact, thus limiting their ability to make an informed choice.”
The report also appeared to endorse the opposition’s complaint that the country’s electoral commission, which it accused of lacking transparency, changed its own rules on referendum day to order vote counters to consider valid ballots that lacked official stamps.
“These instructions undermined an important safeguard and contradicted the law that explicitly states that such ballots should be considered invalid,” the report said.
The OSCE report was an unusually harsh document for a staid intergovernmental organization that mostly assembles little-noticed conferences attended by bureaucrats. Its report on the referendum is highly significant because Turkey's Western partners have said they would withhold judgment on the controversial referendum pending the OSCE findings. Just hours before the White House statement, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said the US would withhold judgment on the referendum until the OSCE findings were made public.
Though the report praised the orderly and thorough casting of ballots, it noted features of the campaign and the voting itself that fell short of what it described as international conventions to which Turkey itself has signed on. It criticized the legal framework of the vote, which barred any organization but officially recognized political parties from campaigning, and restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech imposed in the wake of last year’s failed coup attempt.
It called the government’s strategy of forcing voters to choose on 18 amendments to change 72 articles of the constitution on a simple “yes” or “no” vote without spelling out the changes on the ballot or at voting centers “contrary to good practice for referendum.”
Burcu Karakas contributed to this report.