A vote to grant new powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sparked fresh arguments in a divided Turkey on Monday, as opposition parties called for the annulment of the referendum results and Erdogan insisted the debate over the outcome should stop.
And a sharply worded report Monday by an international monitoring group said the referendum “fell short” of full adherence to international standards. It criticized numerous aspects of the vote, including a change to the ballot-counting procedures that “removed an important safeguard.”
By a razor-thin margin, voters Sunday approved constitutional changes that will radically transform Turkey’s system of government, abolishing the post of prime minister and shifting from a parliamentary system. The new model strengthens the clout of the presidency just eight months after a coup attempt aimed at toppling Erdogan’s government.
Former ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman tells me, “It is hard to know exactly how much fraud took place during Sunday’s referendum.” He explains, “Well into the count, the Higher Election Commission changed the rules and allowed ballots that lacked the official seal to be counted. This has been grounds for voiding some election results in the past in Turkey.” He point out, “The head of the commission initially said some 2.5 million votes were cast that way and subsequently said he had no idea how many such ballots were cast.” Can we say Erdogan would have lost had the voting followed international standards? “Given the narrow margin, one cannot exclude that this along with other irregularities may have made the difference in the outcome, but it is premature to reach that judgment now,” says Edelman.
The State Department has now issued a statement, which takes an exceptionally lenient tone. It urged “both sides to focus on working together for Turkey’s future.” As for the international monitors, the State Department notes reports of “irregularities” but indicated it would wait until a final report. The statement ended with a bland appeal for Turkey to “protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens,” something it, of course, has not done in the post-coup crackdown. It is hard to discern any interest in halting Erdogan’s evolution into a strong man akin to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi (whom President Trump embraced without reservation recently, and without public mention of human rights abuses).
“Countries like Egypt and Turkey are key partners of the United States — in the case of Turkey, it is a NATO ally, and in the case of Egypt, it is one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance,” acknowledges David Kramer of the pro-human rights McCain Institute. “Both countries face huge security challenges, but the leaderships in Cairo and Ankara are not making matters better by their consolidation of power and crackdown on human rights, civil society, the media and the opposition.” He argues, “Respecting human rights and advancing security should be mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive, and that message should be conveyed by Washington at every opportunity.”
There are no easy answers here. The Obama administration took virtually no action as Egypt slid into an autocracy and civil liberties were crushed. Regimes like Turkey — such as China, Russia, Iran and others — have seen a green light from the United States to do as they please internally. Erdogan is likely to continue the course he is on. “The notion that a satiated Erdogan would become more reasonable and constructive post-referendum already seems to be discredited,” Edelman notes. “You can see this in his post-referendum comments decrying the opposition of other ‘crusader’ countries and calling for re-imposition of the death penalty.”
Truth be told, our tools for affecting Turkey’s conduct are limited. We can jawbone privately or publicly, or offer carrots to induce increased respect for civil liberties. That’s not a lot — even if Trump were inclined to use such tools. “Turkey remains a pivotal country (a NATO ally that sits astride a crucial and troubled Middle East). Trying to maintain some kind of relationship of influence in Ankara will remain an important interest for the Trump administration but the degree of difficulty just got significantly harder, ” Edelman cautions. “The U.S. role should be to try to persuade Erdogan to maintain as many of the institutions of pluralism as possible and to try and induce him to return to the negotiating table with the Kurds. We also need to rebuild military to military ties that have been disrupted by the post-coup purge of the military while at the same time being open and frank about our criticisms of violations of human rights, deviations from rule of law, and support for free media both publicly and privately.”
One thing is clear: As bad as Turkey’s human rights record has become, it’s going to get worse.