Turkey’s opposition party to challenge referendum on expanding presidential powers at European Court

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on April 26, 2017.
(Adem Altan / AFP/Getty Images)

The question now is whether Europe can and will step in to keep Turkey’s leader from expanding his powers.

Turkey’s main opposition party announced Wednesday it will challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s April 16 referendum victory to replace the country’s parliamentary democracy with an all-powerful “presidential system.”

The opposition will ask the European Court of Human Rights to render judgment, a day after Turkey’s top administrative court ruled it lacked jurisdiction over the electoral body whose oversight of the voting has sparked daily nationwide protests.


“We faced illegal referendum results after seeing an unverified election,” Selin Sayek Boke, a spokeswoman for the Republican People’s Party told journalists in Ankara. “Our priority is standing up for the legal rights of all citizens. Thus, we would like to announce that we will soon apply to the ECHR.”

Turkey’s Council of State, one of two top judicial bodies in the country, ruled in a 4-1 vote Tuesday not to review the decision of the Supreme Electoral Council, citing specific language in the Turkish Constitution that bars courts from overturning the electoral overseers’ decision.

The electoral council is expected to issue a final tally of the votes in the coming days, but it has said the preliminary result — with 51.4% of voters approving sweeping constitutional amendments and 48.6% opposed — is correct. But the main opposition party, along with a number of civil society groups, have collected evidence of what they say is up to 2 million votes cast fraudulently or that need to be reexamined.

With just under an hour left before polls closed, the council announced it would disregard voting procedures and allow potentially suspect ballots to be counted. Ballots, as well as the envelopes they are sealed in, are required to have a stamp from electoral observers on them to ensure their validity. But after a last-minute request from an observer from the ruling AK Party, the electoral council ordered that the possibly irregular ballots be counted. Many officials added the missing stamps to the ballots before counting them, making it impossible to separate them for any recount. In a 2014 election in which unstamped ballots were counted, the electoral body ordered the vote be repeated.

The opposition party has presented a report that indicates hundreds of ballot boxes — accounting for millions of votes — may have been stuffed because when they were counted, all the ballots in them had been found to be “yes” votes. The ruling AK Party has dismissed fraud allegations, along with videos circulating online appearing to show ballot boxes being stuffed.

Harun Armagan, a member of the ruling party, said the fact that the results were so close was an indication that fraud did not take place. “If it was a dictatorship, if it was an autocracy, the referendum result would be 99% versus 1%. I think this close result also proves that Turkey is a functioning democracy .… It was a competitive race between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and people have voted ‘yes’ with 1.4 million difference, and now it’s time to move on and accept that.”

AK Party leaders have said that neither Turkey’s other top judicial body, the Constitutional Court, nor the European Court of Human Rights has any jurisdiction over the referendum.

The Constitutional Court has no right and authority to review the referendum according to the constitution and the conventions that Turkey is party to.

— Bekir Bozdağ, Turkey’s minister of justice


“The Constitutional Court has no right and authority to review the referendum according to the constitution and the conventions that Turkey is party to,” Turkish Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ said this week. “The opposition can also apply to the ECHR, but it cannot achieve a result there either, because the agreements Turkey signed do not give parties the right to apply.”

Before accepting the case, the European court may ask the opposition to exhaust all domestic legal avenues, including applying to the Constitutional Court, said Levent Korkut, a constitutional lawyer and lecturer at Istanbul’s Medipol University.

“After that, the ECHR must see the text of the petition, because abstract applications cannot be accepted by the court, they must be concrete problems, usually affecting the rights of individuals.”

Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the ECHR in 1959, but it has historically been the most regular defendant in the court. In 2016, the court ruled against Turkey in 77 of 88 judgments, making it the second-most frequent violator after Russia.

In most of those decisions, the court has ordered the Turkish government to pay financial restitution, as was the case in a ruling issued Wednesday in which Ankara was told to pay 1 million euros to the Republican People’s Party after the Constitutional Court improperly seized a portion of the party’s assets nearly a decade ago. Turkey has failed to comply with several such rulings, including an order to pay 90 million euros to Greek Cypriots affected by Turkey’s 1974 intervention of Cyprus.

On Tuesday, the Council of Europe — citing a scathing report on allegations from monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — voted to put Turkey back under monitoring for human rights violations. In 2004, Turkey became the first and only country to ever have the monitoring lifted, an achievement that was touted as a major victory by the AK Party in its campaign to have Turkey become a member of the European Union.

Turkey’s top negotiator with the EU, Omer Celik, said the decision was “not fair, it’s wrong and has nothing to do with the realities of Turkey.”

Erdogan, who has repeatedly said Turkey could hold a Brexit-style referendum to decide on continuing to seek EU membership, has said Europe’s attitudes towards the AK Party as well as Islam in general are behind the deterioration of relations. But on Tuesday he continued to walk a fine line on the issue.

“[The EU] needs a country like Turkey, a different country symbolizing a different faith,” he said. “But the EU member states don’t seem to realize this fact. They are finding it very difficult to absorb a Muslim country like Turkey.”

Farooq is a special correspondent.