Factual mistakes in an article by the Independent on recent political events and Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum

Time to read
3 minutes
Read so far

Factual mistakes in an article by the Independent on recent political events and Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum

2019-09-04 03:23 BST
Posted in:

The Independent author Patrick Cockburn makes an anachronic mistake about the July 15 coup attempt, falsely claims that the constitutional referendum held nearly a year after was “rigged"

On 30 August 2019, The Independent published an opinion piece penned by Patrick Cockburn. In the article titled “Boris Johnson's coup is eerily reminiscent of Erdogan's rise to power in Turkey,” the author compares British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend the British Parliament to the past actions of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Cockburn claims that Boris Johnson “follows the footsteps” of Erdogan on his path to “populism and autocracy.” He presents the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt as President Erdogan's autocratization of Turkey, allegedly in a process of grabbing an even higher power.

However, the article contains factual mistakes.

Firstly, the author falsely mentions Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the “then-prime minister” during the period when the coup attempt took place. However, Erdogan was already the president of Turkey at the time, elected in 2014, two years prior to the 2016 coup attempt.

Secondly, the article alleges that the constitutional referendum in April 2017 which changed Turkey’s system of government from a parliamentary system to executive presidency was “rigged” and the referendum gave President Erdogan “dictatorial powers.”

Less than a year after the failed military coup, Erdogan held a blatantly rigged referendum which marginalised parliament and gave him dictatorial powers. Despite the harassment and silencing of critics, it passed by only 51.4 per cent in favour of these constitutional changes as opposed to 48.6 per cent against. Even this narrow majority was only achieved late on election night when the head of the electoral board overseeing the election decided that votes not stamped as legally valid, numbering as many as 1.5 million, would be counted as valid, quite contrary to practice in previous Turkish elections.

The claim of a “rigged” referendum is false, as no independent monitoring institution is known to have voiced similar claims about the constitutional referendum of 2017. In fact, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the primary supranational organization that monitors election processes with observers attending from 57 participating States, declared in its report:

“While a few procedural errors were noted, in the limited instances of observation by the OSCE/ODIHR LROM, the counting and tabulation processes were generally assessed positively.”

Moreover, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Group Deputy Chairman Ozgur Ozel strictly emphasized in a TV show before the referendum that it is impossible to rig the elections thanks to the electoral information system dubbed SECSIS, deeming such rumors that votes will be stolen as ‘provocations’.

“As the CHP, we are organized at every ballot box. There is no possibility of theft [vote rigging] in the system called SECSIS. We set up the same system. It compares [our numbers with the official numbers] and gives an alarm in case of the tiniest incompatibility. We have the power, determination and organization that will not let even a single vote to be stolen. It is not only us who does this. Many other parties do it as well. Citizens will cast their votes and we’ll be responsible for their protection,” he said.

Furthermore, the organization of the elections in Turkey was praised in general by the OSCE/ODIHR. In its report on the latest general elections in Turkey on 1 November 2015, the OSCE/ODIHR said: “Election day was generally peaceful and . . . the voting process was overall organized in an efficient manner. BBC [ballot box committee] members were well-prepared and followed voting procedures overall.”

Likewise, in its report on the presidential election in 2014, the OSCE/ODIHR stated that “election day was generally organized in a professional and efficient manner, and BBC [ballot box committee] members overall were well prepared and followed voting procedures.”

The author also claims the referendum narrowly passed only because “the votes not stamped as legally valid, numbering as many as 1.5 million, were counted as valid.” This is another inaccurate statement about the referendum.

During the referendum process, Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) stressed that accepting unstamped ballots was not a novel practice and it had happened in the past as well. Moreover, the stamp which would be inscribed on ballots by ballot box committees was not the only measure that ensures the security of the elections. A valid ballot must also bear the watermark and emblem of the High Electoral Board, as well as the stamp of the district electoral council. Ballots which fail to fulfill even a single one of these conditions or other criteria were not accepted.

Lastly, Patrick Cockburn alleges that President Erdogan has assumed dictatorial powers after the constitutional referendum of 2017, which has brought the new executive presidential system to Turkey’s governance.

This is a misleading statement about Turkey’s current government system as there are many checks and balances on the executive branch through the legislative and the judiciary.

In fact, the new system has further limited the president’s effect over the legislative and judiciary branches, therefore strengthening the separation of powers. The number of Constitutional Court judges appointed by the president has decreased from 14 to 12.

Additionally, the president was prohibited to take part in both the legislature and the executive at the same time in this new system, unlike the previous state of affairs in the parliamentary system. Furthermore, the membership of a member of the parliament would be terminated if they were to accept holding office as a minister, which reinforces the separation of powers yet again.

Moreover, all officials within the executive, including the president, was prohibited from presenting legislative proposals to the parliament, contributing to its independence. For further reading, here is our detailed fact-check about Turkey’s latest constitutional amendments in 2017, tackling frequently-voiced false claims on the subject.