Turkey referendum monitor: “It is a very, very different climate and a different environment to the last elections”

Apr 14, 2017 · 15 min read

By Laura Pitel in Ankara

On Wednesday I interviewed Tana de Zulueta, the former Italian MP who is heading the OSCE/ODIHR international election monitoring mission for Sunday’s referendum in Turkey.

The vote is on proposals to transform Turkey from a parliamentary system of governance to a presidential one, abolishing the role of prime minister and handing more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The mission has already produced an interim report on the campaign period. They will present their full conclusions on Monday 17 April, the day after polling day.

Part of the interview is being used by a newspaper that I work for, but — given that there is a lot of interest in whether this vote will be free and fair — I wanted to put it online in full.

This is a lightly-edited transcript of our discussion.

Note at 20:00 on 14.04.2017: This post has been amended at the request of Ms De Zulueta to remove a small passage near the start of the discussion that contained an inaccuracy.


You were invited here by Turkey. Have you found that the government and the authorities have been helpful and cooperative and given you everything they need?
They have.

You’re only here on what is known as a Limited Referendum Observation Mission. Why is that?

They’re called Limited when there isn’t the full short-term observation with a large number of observers on the ground in order to assess the quality of voting with a statistically significant sample of observations. There has never been a full Election Observation Mission (EOM) to Turkey… The assessment mission thought that — given the history of Turkish elections — an observation mission dedicated primarily to an assessment of the campaign and the environment might actually be more meaningful. Because voting is the strong point of Turkish elections. Even now, in spite of the pressures on the judiciary and the restrictions felt by civil society, those same civil society [organisations] are fairly confident in the integrity of the process because of the party observer system, which is believed to work well.

But there have been some problems with that in this election, right? [The People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose stronghold is the Kurdish-majority south east, has complained that dozens of its nominations for District Election Boards have been rejected on the grounds of “bad reputation”]
Well that’s it. It creates an unprecedented situation. This power to dismiss party representatives based on their alleged reputation had never been exercised before by the electoral administration and it has been hitting exclusively HDP representatives. And that’s in areas where there are no other opposition parties.

Do you have numbers?
We had 140 but I saw that the numbers were growing. Those were board members but now it’s also the party representatives at a lower level.

Is that something to be worried about?
That’s what we’re asking. The HDP say they’re struggling to fill these posts because of the huge numbers of arrests that have hit them. So we’ll have to see. We’ll have to watch that one closely. The CHP [the opposition People’s Republican Party] say they are sending some MPs to the south east as a gesture of solidarity. So it is perceived as a potential problem.

Does it seem that there will be some ballot boxes that are un-monitored?
It could well be. There often are in rural areas. Though there is no provision for non-party observers in Turkish law, [in the past] a number of NGOs have been doing it informally, under the umbrella of political parties. Sometimes very much a borrowed umbrella in that they weren’t reporting to the political party, they were reporting to their NGO, but the political parties encouraged that.

The most important example is Vote and Beyond (Oy ve Ötesi) but they have seriously curtailed their activities this time, they told us. Because of the emergency decrees and the restrictive environment they feared for repercussions for their members. But the NGOS, they’ve been doing it a number of them, in a less structured way. There’s a fairly widespread tradition here. And they said they weren’t going to be able to get people to rural areas because the women’s associations that had been participating in their previous activities were not willing to do so this time round.

So do you have any sense of how many ballot boxes could be unattended?
No, we don’t. We don’t really have a sense of how many will be attended. The only organisation that claims they will all be attended is the AKP [the ruling Justice and Development Party]. The CHP hope to do so but they’re not absolutely sure.

What does that mean, if we extrapolate that?
It needn’t be that significant. But in a very close vote, it could lead to results which might be challenged. And, when I was here [for the general election] in 2011, it was interesting because they did their first parallel count, which they did quite efficiently, but now [the CHP] have much more high-tech initiative going and they are very well organised to do their parallel count.

What does a parallel count mean?
It means their party representatives in each polling station register the results as they come through, share them with the party’s own electronic database so that they elaborate their own final result on the basis of their own observations. So, if it doesn’t match, they challenge. In 2011 it matched. So that was considered a very positive example of a confidence-building measure.

Just to make sure I understand, does that mean that — at a ballot box in a small town — once the votes are counted and a result declared, they can’t then be altered when they leave that voting station?
Yes. [There are] bulletins [and] the actual party representatives are allowed copies of them. They share this data with their own parallel electronic system within the party so if there is a mismatch between results as they appear in the state election board computer and their own observation, they could use it as a basis for a challenge.

It doesn’t mean though that there couldn’t be fiddling before the counting or that the counting couldn’t go wrong?
As they are present at the counting, they are quite confident about it. With a Yes/No, the counting is quite straightforward — it’s two piles.

What about when the ballot boxes are being brought from individual polling stations to the counting place?
They’re counted in the polling station.

So there’s no potential to lose a bag on the way?
No. Then they bring the results in a bag to these district election boards where, as I remember, a judge presides.

What about the role and status of the judiciary?

All the election administration is handled by the judiciary. This, too, is something we are watching closely. [The situation the judiciary] has changed a lot since we were last here. A third of the members of the judiciary have been fired. Some of those are still in jail. This is an ongoing process… Three members of the Supreme Election Board are in prison. And of the eight new ones, five others were elected by newly-appointed courts. So there has been huge turnover.

The issue of pressure on the judiciary is something we watch closely. Because of the role in the election administration, they are also those who handle complaints at different levels. And the Supreme Election Board is exclusively manned by judges. Parties are non-voting members on the Supreme Election Board… And the Supreme Election Board acts as an election tribunal as well. So on all complaints they have the last word, including on the final result.

The role of the media
The other area we’re looking at closely is the media environment — with a huge number of arrested journalists, media outlets closed. We were here when three judges were suspended for taking a decision regarding the freeing of the journalists [see here for more, in Turkish], which was criticised by the government. That sets a precedent.

You’ve been doing your own media monitoring, observing five TV channels. Are you able to speak about what you’ve found?

We’re not but I don’t think it will be a surprise to you. As you see in our interim [report] we already note that the huge majority of privately owned national broadcasters are openly sympathetic to the government.

We also note, which was rather striking, the fact that, among the emergency decrees [issued after last summer’s coup attempt] was a decree to abolish the power of the Supreme Election Board to sanction media outlets that are not producing balanced coverage. Under the law they should be [providing balanced coverage] in the run up to a vote. And there are no sanctions. So RTÜK [the Radio and Television Supreme Council] is monitoring, they send their reports and the reports just sit there because they have no consequence. That was put as a decree on a par with anti-terrorism measures…

What we were told [by government officials and those from the AKP] was that the approach to media was very free marketeer. If you’re a successful party you have a lot of media who talk about you because you are an interesting thing to talk about.

Are you willing to pass comment on the decree that takes away the ability to fine imbalanced media coverage?
It certainly sent a signal. It sent a signal to media administrators that they need not exercise any restraint if they wish to be more sympathetic to one side than the other.

Talking about the state of emergency more generally, do you think it is problematic to hold a referendum under a state of emergency?
That is a question we had in our minds. It had been flagged by the Venice Commission [an advisory body of the Council of Europe, which recently produced a highly critical report on the changes that are being put to a referendum.] And certainly, the special powers given to the governors under the state of emergency to restrict freedom of assembly and even freedom of speech looked as if they could be used in a restrictive way and in some cases they were.

What about the use of state resources — is that something’s you’ve looked at, too?
Yes, that’s something we’ve looked at. There are rules about it in Turkish legislation. They’re particularly strict about it in this last week of the campaign. With very, very detailed instruction to government ministers, who cannot use state vehicles or attend opening ceremonies in this last week for campaign-related events. But these restrictions do not restrict the President’s freedom of movement because, under the constitution, he’s still by law defined as a neutral figure. So we shall have to see in these last days. We’ve been attending every rally — our observers have been present and most interesting it has been. We have quite detailed reports.

Can you explain what your work will entail on the day itself?
Though we don’t observe systematically — which would involve visiting ten polling stations each — we will be visiting polling stations and be present at the opening and the count in as many as we can. Particularly at the count and what we call the tabulation, where the results are transferred and consolidated. It can be an interesting and important part of the night’s activities. We often have observers staying up all night to do that. So we will be doing this on a much smaller scale. We won’t have forms which in a full observation mission would be electrically processed. We will have a more descriptive forms in which we will be noting. That will be us 11 here in Ankara and our 12 teams round the country.

Do you observe overseas voting among the 3 million expat Turks registered to vote?
We do not observe and I noticed in an interview the director of the ODIHR Michael Link said that perhaps we should think of ways of being able to do so. It’s so important with nearly 3 million registered voters outside the country. The rules on ballot box security, the actual management of election materials and so on are not so precisely drafted for the vote overseas as they are for election producers in the country. And, as you know, there has been a fairly contentious campaign outside the country. So we expect, perhaps, complaints.

There is a new system in place that we thought could potentially cause problems for the administration, with any citizen now residing abroad [able to] vote anywhere abroad. Because they now have a single register and it is electronic, they are confident that it will signal to them if someone has voted already. In fact, I believe someone was arrested for trying to do so. What is not so clear is how they would regulate the amount of election materials available. You might run out of ballots if too many people showed up. Or you may have too many leftover. In fact, they said they would be using previous ballots from a previous election that they still had in the consulates in some consulates. Now that would seem not in line with best practice because the rules say that unused election material is returned. So there is a certain lack of precision in the rules of how these materials are handled. So we do foresee that there may be complaints.

For example, Luxembourg, where there were many more voters than registered residents. That is, in principal, perfectly possible because you can come from Germany or France or Belgium and, if it’s more convenient for you, you can vote there. So it’s not out of line with the rules — it can be explained. But how they handled it and whether everyone was satisfied with how they handled it, we don’t know. It’s the party observers who will be telling us, if they tell us anything.

Have there been observers on overseas ballot boxes?
I think at the main ones there have. Some of them [CHP observers] even traveled with the ballots.

What about monitoring in the south east? [The area has witnessed heavy fighting since the collapse of the ceasefire between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in July 2015].
There are, as you know, security issues…. [But this time we have] the largest [ever] deployment in the south east. In previous elections there was only Diyarbakır. Now we have Van as well and Gaziantep. Our security expert has visited them all. On one of the visits he was with me. We follow very closely where the security zones are. [Security zones can be announced by local governors on the grounds of public order]. That’s relevant to the moment of our observers and their ability to move. But it’s also relevant to the movements of voters… They [the authorities] assure us they are ongoing in very thinly-populated areas but even thinly-populated areas have their right to vote. So we’re watching that issue carefully. We try to keep very detailed information that we get from the police, with whom we’ve had good cooperation. It helps us also be quite confident about the movement of our observers.

What about people forcibly displaced by the fighting [said by the UN to number somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000]? Do you have any idea how many people might be disenfranchised by moving and failing to re-register?
We don’t have a precise idea because we weren’t here at the time that the voter register was updated. The figures for internally displaced people, the ones we have are the ones the UN quotes in its report. Our interlocutors on the ground in Diyarbakır and Van actually think it is a conservative estimate. They are also convinced that a tiny fraction — if any — of this 350,000 to 500,000 will have re-registered. Because it was a week in which this could be done after the referendum was announced and we were told that they had other issues on their mind. The governor told us that no special service was put in place to inform or assist people with re-registration and nor was the HDP in a position to do that.

There’s been no suggestion from the government side that, say, some of these people have been able to go back to their homes?
In Sur [a district of Diyarbakır that saw heavy clashes, where many homes have now been demolished] they acknowledge that 15,000 people have moved. That’s not 15,000 voters, but they were not in a position to say whether these people had been assisted in re-registering because they would now be in a different area.

It sounds unlikely, basically, from what you’re saying.
Yes. It hasn’t been addressed as a problem and we are told that they don’t see it as a problem because they had the opportunity to re-register if they so wished. That there were no obstacles. So the numbers could be significant in some districts, of people who are simply not there any more to vote.

On the moving of polling stations in the south east on security grounds
Another issue is the issue of [moving] polling stations. This is still ongoing, we see from media, and we are going to check… People usually vote in a local school and then there is a decision taken by a governor to move a polling station from that school to another school in a local neighbourhood. So close to the vote it’s difficult to inform people in time, especially if it’s from one village to another. Some of these decisions have been appealed to the Supreme Election Board. And some of these appeals were actually accepted. But it’s been going on — and continues to go on. And what we were told was that there was a concern about polling stations moving from a village where they have voted in the last election to villages where there are village guards [citizens paid by the state to provide armed protection against the PKK] and they [HDP voters] don’t feel comfortable about voting.

One of the things that the AKP says is that, in past elections, the PKK made it difficult for people to vote. That they made people feel under pressure and insecure. Now I don’t hear that from the AKP.
That’s what the governor said. He said that is no longer a concern.

We’ve spoken about journalists who are in prison. So too are the two leaders of the HDP.
Obviously this is the third party in parliament… [It is] not only their presence in prison but [also a] huge numbers of local officials. When we were in Diyarbakır there were 89 mayors in prison. It may have gone up, it may have gone down because people come in and out. Three of our interlocutors had just been in prison — one human rights lawyer and two HDP representatives. One was a co-chair, the other was an MP. Both had been in prisons. They say that the tensions have impacted their ability to campaign drastically.

What do you say about this?
We will say it on the 17th.

What about those in prison [following last summer’s attempted coup] — the journalists, judges, civil servants, do they have the right to vote from prison?
This was something that we were trying to ascertain. Because of the such astonishingly high number of civil servants, in particular, and journalists and judges in prison. Astonishing because I think it’s unprecedented, certainly in an OECD country…. Potentially [it is] not only the ones in prison who are affected. The law says that a person who is suspended from the civil service cannot vote. But we asked if this would affect the thousands who have been suspended by decree. Apparently not. So that should not affect them.

[She quotes from interim report]: “On 15 February, the Supreme Board of Elections adopted a decision that partially addressed the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights on suffrage rights and clarified that those with convictions who are not currently in prison are allowed to vote even if their sentence is not fully executed.” So those are the ones out of prison. Whether anybody in prison will be able to vote… Seeing as a number of people who are in prison are not serving sentences, in principle they should be able to vote.

We intend to visit a polling station in prison — at least one… We used not to have access to prisons but we were told we could this time, which I think is important. We appreciate that.

Are you able to say which prison you’ll be observing?
No, we don’t know yet.

It’s not up to you or you haven’t decided?
We would like to have the big prison outside Ankara [unclear which one — perhaps a reference to Sincan Prison] if possible and I know that the parliamentarians would like to visit a prison in Izmir but we don’t know yet because they might say that you can’t there but you can here.

They’ve said you can observe a prison but you don’t know which one?
In principal, yes.

To wrap up, to me, your overall assessment doesn’t sound great. It sounds like, from what you’re saying, there has been quite a big deterioration and there are quite a lot of concerns.
Yes. It is a very, very different climate and a different environment to the last parliamentary elections [in June and November 2015]. We have to see how these concerns actually impact but as you can see, from our interim report, the problems have already profoundly affected the media environment and the ability to campaign.

Would you go so far as to pass judgement on whether it has been a fair campaign?
No, we can’t. Not yet. We would be overstepping our mandate. Our assessment has to be the day after the vote. But we have already signalled our concerns with our interim reports about restrictions on voters’ ability to campaign.


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