Published by Al-Monitor on 18th of April 2017

Allegations of fraud in Turkey’s April 16 referendum show no signs of abating despite government denials that any irregularity occurred.

Today, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) petitioned the Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) for the vote on boosting the powers of the presidency to be annulled.

CHP Deputy Chairman Bulent Tezcan, who lodged the appeal, called the referendum “organized vote theft.” He was referring in particular to the board’s controversial last-minute decision to breach its own rules and accept ballots without official seals. The opposition charges it did so to clear the path for cheating. The amendments squeaked through with a razor-thin margin at 51%.

Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former CHP member of parliament, said the YSK’s actions coupled with reports from the field point to “reckless fraud carried out with impunity.”

He told Al-Monitor, “To avert fraud, we tell ballot box observers that to make the ballots distinguishable from the outside, they should not only stamp the ballots but stamp them all in the same place — to pick a corner on the envelope, on the ballot itself, and stick with it. This narrows the opportunity for tampering.”

Tezcan said the number of unstamped ballots was impossible to determine. “The only thing left to do is cancel the vote.”

Tezcan added that his party would take its case to Turkey’s Constitutional Court and to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights if need be.

In the capital Ankara, citizens formed long lines outside the YSK headquarters to submit petitions for annulment. In Istanbul, crowds gathered outside the main courthouse in Cagalayan on the European side of the city to register their disapproval. Sporadic street protests have erupted across Istanbul with citizens banging pots and pans and chanting “murderer” and “thief.”

A Western diplomat predicted that such actions were unlikely to reverse the outcome. Speaking on condition that he not be identified, the diplomat said, “While it is clear that the conduct of the referendum was illegal, there is no evidence to prove that the 1.3 million votes [that tipped the balance] were either doctored or invalid.”

Even vocal opponents of the government agree. Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the left-leaning daily Cumhuriyet and a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted, “A 1.3 million difference cannot be explained away by fraud claims.”

Erdogan received an unexpected boost from US President Donald Trump, who called to congratulate him on his victory.

The two leaders also reportedly discussed the latest situation in Syria, where the US-led coalition is preparing an all-out assault on Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State. The call caught many administration officials by surprise and the State Department, whose initial reaction to the referendum was markedly circumspect, was not consulted, Al-Monitor has learned.

Former US Ambassador to Ankara Eric Edelman called the move “very ill-advised.” In remarks to Al-Monitor he noted, “First, the conduct of the referendum itself has been harshly criticized by the OSCE. Second, the opposition in Turkey is still contesting the result. Third, the only entities to congratulate Erdogan are a coalition of the disreputable — Azerbaijan, Qatar, Hamas, Ahrar al-Sham — not the kind of company the United States normally keeps. And what did the US get in return for this gesture? Absolutely nothing.”

Edelman was alluding to the election-monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which delivered its preliminary findings yesterday. They weren’t good.

Mission chief Tana de Zulueta declared at a news conference that the constitutional referendum was passed on “an unlevel playing field.” Zulueta noted, “The referendum took place in a political environment in which fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed under the state of emergency, and the two sides did not have equal opportunities to make their case to the voters.”

The negative tone was unusual for the notoriously cautious outfit, suggesting that Turkey had crossed a line. Nate Schenkkan, the project director for Nations in Transit at Freedom House, told Al-Monitor, “The OSCE only describes what they can observe for themselves and what they gain from interviews with stakeholders. They stick to the facts.” Schenkkan added, “For them to put out a harsh assessment like this means they didn’t get adequate explanations from the Turkish government when they asked questions.”

True to form, Erdogan dismissed the allegations of misconduct as a further manifestation of the West’s “crusader mentality” and said the monitors should “know their place.”

Meanwhile, fresh evidence suggesting blatant malfeasance continues to surface via social media. Images shared by a man in the mainly Kurdish province of Mus, where votes in favor prevailed, has prompted a fresh outcry. In the photographs he posted on Facebook, a man is seen brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle. The caption reads, “There are 305 votes in my ballot box and by the grace of Allah, all 305 are yes.”