Human Rights in Turkey Part 2Monday, April 05, 1993
In this briefing, Mary Sue Hafner, Deputy Staff Director to the Commission, addresses the state of human rights in Turkey and its failure to build effective, enduring democratic institutions. Hafner highlights the most pressing issues as being torture, the rights of minorities, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. This continuation of the transcript includes Maryam Elahi’s and Namik Tan’s statements on the human rights conditions in Turkey in 1993. Elahi summarizes Amnesty International’s concerns regarding Turkey’s increase in torture, its extrajudicial killings and “disappearances,” and the general targeting of minorities and opposition members. Tan emphasizes the dissolution of the Soviet Union as catalyzing the instability in the region surrounding Turkey and insisted on the importance of Turkey’s security to the West.
The Countries of Central Asia: Problems in the Transition to Independence and the ImplicationsThursday, March 25, 1993
This was the first Helsinki Commission hearing held on the Central Asian republics. The Commissioners and witnesses discussed five countries' transitions to independence, which were complicated by the presence of repressive regimes that maintained the old Soviet-style order and economic turmoil. Chairman DeConcini opened the hearing by noting that the presidents of four out of the five new Central Asian countries were former first secretaries of the Communist Party. Dr. Martha Olcott, professor of political science at Colgate University, expressed concern over the rise of extremist ideologies of nationalism and Islam in the region, which were fuelled by economic stagnation. Firuz Kazemzadeh, professor emeritus as Yale University, argued instead that the dominant threat in the region came from the projection of Russian influence. This was corroborated by Micah Naftalin, director of the Union Council for Soviet Jews, who detailed the KGB's role in silencing the press and repressing opposition in Turkmenistan, and the growth and diffusion of anti-semitism from Russia into Central Asia. A final testimony was offered by Adbumannob Pulatov, chairman of the Uzbekistan Society for Human Rights. Pulatov decried the lack of press freedom in Uzbekistan and urged Congress to continue its monetary support of Radio Liberty. In the end, all four witnesses cautioned that human rights concerns often take a back seat to other issues, and that doing so could jeopardize progress in the field.
Report: The CSCE Human Dimension Seminar on ToleranceSunday, November 01, 1992
The structure of the seminar was designed to maximize contact and dialogue among participants during the brief week in Warsaw. Modeled after a U.S. proposal, three discussion groups were designed to focus on: the role of educational and cultural institutions, as well as the media, in promoting tolerance; the role of local authorities; and legal issues and law enforcement. Two groups ran simultaneously at any given time, enabling even the smallest delegations to rotate reasonably efficiently among the different discussions. Moderators from Switzerland, the United States (Colonel Ronald Joe, Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, U.S. Army), and the United Kingdom were selected by the ODIHR to manage the three discussions respectively.
Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in an Independent CroatiaSaturday, August 01, 1992
On August 2, 1992, Croatia held elections for the position of President of the Republic as well as for seats in the House of Representatives, one of two chambers in Croatia's "Sabor," or Assembly. These were the second multi-party elections in Croatia since 1990, when alternative political parties first competed for power. They were, however, the first since Croatia proclaimed itself an independent state in 1991, and achieved international recognition as such in 1992, following the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. Incumbent Franjo Tudjman easily won a first-round victory among a field of eight presidential candidates. His party, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), also won just over half of the parliamentary seats allocated in proportion to votes for the lists of 17 parties, and a very large number of the seats designated for particular electoral districts. This result allows the HDZ to form a new government alone rather than in coalition with other parties. A shift to the far right, which many feared, did not materialize. Despite a number of open questions, the election results likely reflect the legitimate choice of Croatia's voting population. At the same time, the elections demonstrated disappointingly little democratic progress in Croatia since 1990. Detracting most from the elections was the lack of serious effort by the authorities to instill confidence in the electoral system, followed by the perceived political motivation in scheduling them in August. The elections also revealed some shortcomings on the part of the opposition, including a lack of coordinated effort to ensure that they were conducted freely and fairly. Croatia has a western-oriented, well educated and sophisticated society which provide a basis for democratic government. Decades of communist rule and a fierce nationalism linked to Croatia's search for independence have, at the same time, unleashed societal trends contrary to democratic development. The context in which these elections took place was also complicated by the conflict in Croatia that began in earnest in July 1991 as militants among the alienated ethnic-Serb population of Croatia, with the encouragement of the Serbian leadership in Belgrade and the help of the Yugoslav military, demonstrated violently their opposition to the republic's independence. After severe human casualties, population displacement and destruction, the conflict generally ended in January 1992 with a U.N. negotiated ceasefire that included the deployment of U.N. protection forces on much of Croatia's territory A new constitution and growing stability argued for holding new elections. Despite opposition complaints that August was not an appropriate time for elections, President Tudjman scheduled them with the likely calculation that his party stood its best chances in a quick election before growing economic hardship and pressure for genuine democratization replaced the joys of independence and renewed peace. During the campaign period, 29 political parties fielded candidates. They faced no major difficulties in organizing rallies and distributing their literature to the public. At the same time, the Croatian media was only moderately free, with television and radio broadcasts much less so than newspapers and journals. Only toward the end of the campaign did the media seem to open up fully The stated objective in organizing the elections was to be fair and impartial to all contending parties. At the same time, the electoral procedures were not as fully satisfactory as they easily could have been, raising suspicions of an intent to manipulate the results. However, opposition political parties considered the process sufficiently fair for them to compete. They also had the opportunity to have observers present at polling stations and election commissions on election day. According to a constitutional law on the matter, Croatia's national minorities enjoy certain rights regarding their representation in governmental bodies. Ethnic Serbs, the only large minority with some 12 percent of the population, were guaranteed a greater number of seats in the new Sabor than all other minorities combined, but, unlike the smaller minorities, no elections were held in which ethnic Serbs alone could chose their representatives. This was viewed as discriminatory treatment of the Serbian minority, despite apparently small Serbian participation in the elections. Balloting on election day was orderly, despite the enormous complications caused by the conflict and questions of citizenship and voter eligibility in a newly independent country. There were few complaints in regard to the way in which the voting and counting were carried out, although several isolated problems were reported and the security of ballots cast by voters abroad was a constant concern. Despite these faults, holding elections might well have been a watershed for Croatia. Problems in that country's democratic development were given closer scrutiny, and public concerns can now shift from the recent past to future prospects. The winners could view their easy win as a mandate for continuing current policies, largely viewed as nationalistic and insufficiently democratic. However, the far right's poor performance could lessen pressure on the HDZ to show its nationalist colors and permit greater democratic development. The behavior of HDZ leaders to date favors the status quo in the short run, but domestic and international pressure could both encourage more significant democratic reform than has been seen thus far.
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS AND INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUMS IN THE BALTIC STATES, THE SOVIET UNION AND SUCCESSOR STATESThursday, July 02, 1992
1991 was the year of independence referendums and presidential elections in the republics of the Soviet Union. Not coincidentally, it was also the year the Soviet Union fell apart. Its Communist Party elite and institutions proved unable to continue ruling through intimidation or to overcome the powerful sweep of nationalism, stoked by the personal ambition of politicians and mediated through electoral politics. With varying defrees of satisfaction and eagerness, the Baltic States and the constituent republics struck out on their own. The following is a compilation of reports by the Helsinki Commission on presidential elections and independence referendums in the Baltic States, the Soviet Union, and successor states in 1991 and 1992.
Report: the Referendum on Indipendence and Presidential Election in UzbekistanSaturday, December 14, 1991
Uzbekistan held a referendum on independence and its first direct, contested presidential election on December 29,1991. According to the republic's Central Election Commission, over 98 percent of voters cast ballots for independence, and more - important - 86 percent voted for Islam Karimov as president. Karimov, former head of Uzbekistan's Communist Party (now renamed Party deputy to the republic's Supreme Soviet and chairman of the opposition party Erk). Uzbekistan's referendum on independence was a mere formality, given the dissolution of the URSS. Karimov's victory in a direct, two-candidate election signaled significant progress compared to the republic's previous practices and relative to other Central Asia republics, most of which did not hold contested presidential elections. But Karimov's advantages over Salih in the campaign, the exclusion of Pulatov, and the prevalence of old voting habits, both among voters and polling station officials, indicate that much remains to be done before Uzbekistan attains Western and CSCE notions of political pluralism and electoral probity. Two Helsinki Commission staffers observed Uzbekistan's referendum and presidential election, at the invitation of the republic's Supreme Soviet. They spent four days in Tashkent, the capital, and also traveled to Samarkand, to interview spokesmen of unofficial movements about the election and the general political situation in Uzbekistan.
Report: Ukraine's Referendum on Independence and Presidential ElectionSunday, December 01, 1991
In an historic referendum/presidential election on December 1, 1991, residents of Ukraine overwhelmingly voted for independence and chose Leonid Kravchuk, the chairman of the republic’s Supreme Soviet, as president. Hundreds of foreign observers and correspondents watched as 84 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Over 90 percent of participants, including many non-Ukrainians, cast ballots for independence. Former Communist Party apparatchik Kravchuk handily won the presidency on the first round, garnering about 60 percent of the votes. Ukraine’s emergence as an independent state ended any prospects of salvaging a federated or even confederated USSR. The results of the voting provided the direct impetus for the December 8 agreement among the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to create the Commonwealth of Independent States as the successor entity to the Soviet Union, which they formally declared dead. Given the importance of Ukraine’s referendum and presidential election, as well as the republic’s size and regional differences, the Helsinki Commission sent three staffers to observe the voting. Ukraine’s parliament had previously conveyed formal invitations to the Commission, which selected three distinct cities as representative sites to monitor the voting, gauge the popular mood and gain different perspectives on the political implications: Kiev, the capital, in central Ukraine; Lviv, the regional capital of Western Ukraine, reputedly the most highly nationalist area of the republic; and Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine, where the population is heavily Russian or Russified. Unfortunately, logistical and transportation breakdowns in the decaying Soviet Union foiled plans to reach Donetsk, and Commission staff instead traveled to the city of Kaniv (a small city on the Dnipro river). The following report is based on staff observations over several days, and is supplemented by many conversations with voters and officials, as well as Ukrainian and central Soviet newspaper and television coverage.
Ukraine's Referendum on Independence and Presidential ElectionSunday, December 01, 1991
In an historic referendum/presidential election on December 1, 1991, residents of Ukraine overwhelmingly voted for independence and chose Leonid Kravchuk, the chairman of the republic's Supreme Soviet, as president. Hundreds of foreign observers and correspondents watched as 84 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Over 90 percent of participants, including many non-Ukrainians, cast ballots for independence. Former Communist Party apparatchik Kravchuk handily won the presidency on the first round, garnering about 60 percent of the votes. Among the candidates he defeated were two widely admired former dissidents and political prisoners who had served many years in Soviet prisons for advocating Ukrainian independence. The outcome of the referendum, while expected, was nevertheless momentous. Ukraine's emergence as an independent state ended any prospects of salvaging a federated or even confederated USSR. The results of the voting provided the direct impetus for the December 8 agreement among the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to create the Commonwealth of Independent States as the successor entity to the Soviet Union, which they formally declared dead. The rise of Ukraine -- a large state with 52 million people, a highly developed industrial base, rich agricultural capabilities, and, not least, nuclear weapons on its territory -- also altered the geo-political map of Europe. Western capitals, observing the quickly unfolding events and grasping their ramifications, made determined efforts to stop referring to the new republic in their midst as "the" Ukraine, while pondering how its military plans and potential affect security arrangements in the post Cold War world. Given the importance of Ukraine's referendum and presidential election, as well as the republic's size and regional differences, the Helsinki Commission sent three staffers to observe the voting. Ukraine's parliament had previously conveyed formal invitations to the Commission, which selected three distinct cities as representative sites to monitor the voting, gauge the popular mood and gain different perspectives on the political implications: Kiev, the capital, in central Ukraine; Lviv, the regional capital of Western Ukraine, reputedly the most highly nationalist area of the republic; and Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine, where the population is heavily Russian or Russified. Unfortunately, logistical and transportation breakdowns in the decaying Soviet Union foiled plans to reach Donetsk, and Commission staff instead traveled to the city of Kaniv (a small city on the Dnipro river). The following report is based on staff observations over several days, and is supplemented by many conversations with voters and officials, as well as Ukrainian and central Soviet newspaper and television coverage.
Report: the Oslo Seminar of Experts on Democratic InstitutionsTuesday, November 05, 1991
From November 4-15, the CSCE Seminar of Experts on Democratic Institutions met in Oslo, Norway, pursuant to a mandate contained in the 1991 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Accordingly, experts discussed means and ways for "consolidating and strengthening viable democratic institutions." During the course of the Seminar, participants met in three closed study groups in which they considered constitutional and electoral frameworks, as well as comparative human rights legislation. In this context, numerous experts participated in the Oslo Seminar, contributing expositions on the differences among their various democratic traditions and often describing their national experiences in these areas. In addition, contacts among experts, non*governmental organizations, and government representatives in the margins of the meeting contributed to the overall work of the Seminar.
Turkmenistan's Referendum on IndependenceSaturday, October 26, 1991
On October 26, 1991, Turkmenistan held a referendum on independence. Over 97 percent of eligible voters turned out to answer "Yes" or "No" to two questions, the first dealing with the republic's independence, the second seeking approval of President Saparmurad Niyazov's political and economic program. Over 94 percent of participants voted for independence; almost as high a percentage of voters voiced backing for Niyazov. On October 27, an extraordinary session of Turkmenistan's Supreme Soviet declared independence. Most republics of the former Soviet Union declared independence soon after the August 19, 1991 coup attempt. The much-delayed declaration by Turkmenistan's conservative government aimed at putting the republic on an equal footing with the other republics as negotiations among them and what remains of the center continue towards an uncertain conclusion. But Niyazov has made it quite clear that Turkmenistan's leaders will not countenance Baltic or Russian-style political pluralism on the road to independence. Equally clear from statements by the republic's official spokesmen and from the prominence of Iranian guests in Ashkhabad during the referendum is that Turkmenistan will pursue a regional foreign policy, oriented primarily towards developing good relations with its neighbors. Helsinki Commission staff traveled to Turkmenistan to observe the October 26 referendum. The Commission has been observing elections and referendums in the Baltic States and Soviet republics since February 1990. Except for monitoring the voting in the March 1991 All-Union referendum in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, however, the Commission has not been to Central Asia. The trip to Ashkhabad thus marks the beginning of a geographical expansion of Commission activity. U.S. policymakers have tended to neglect the region -- a habit that can no longer be afforded as the USSR dissolves and these republics become independent states and enter the world community. The trip's purposes were therefore not only to observe the balloting in the referendum but also to establish contact with the republic's leadership, to gain a sense of the leadership's plans, its attitude towards the CSCE and its commitments, and to meet with representatives of opposition groups.
The Moscow Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCETuesday, September 10, 1991
In accordance with the mandate of the Vienna Concluding Document, the 38 states participating in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Moscow from September 10 through October 4, 1991, for the third meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension (CHD, or CDH from the French acronym) of the CSCE. The first meeting of the Conference was held in Paris from May 20 through June 23, 1989, and the second was held in Copenhagen from June 5 through 29, 1990. The meetings of the CHD address the full range of human rights and humanitarian concerns associated with the Helsinki process.
Geneva Meeting on National Minorities and Moscow Meeting on the Human DimensionWednesday, July 31, 1991
The hearing will focus on two important CSCE meetings, the Geneva Experts Meeting on National Minorities. The Geneva meeting which recently ended was mandated to discuss national minorities, the meeting had three components: exchange of views on practical experience; review of the implementation of relevant CSCE commitments; and consideration of new measures. The distinguished speaker will outline the major points of the Geneva meeting and how the United States can best utilize its success while moving towards the upcoming human dimension meeting in Moscow.
Democratic Developments in AlbaniaWednesday, May 22, 1991
Beginning at the Copenhagen Human Dimension Meeting in June 1990, Albania has been granted observer status at CSCE meetings. Albania would like to move beyond its current observer status and become a full participant in the process. The Commission delegation had stated when it left after its first visit that it needed to see significant improvements in Albania s human rights performance before we could support Albania’s membership in the CSCE. There is no question that the situation has remarkably improved as of last year, a fact which we on the Helsinki Commission have welcomed and have even complimented the existing government for moving in what we consider the right direction. A key question now, in addition to that of CSCE membership, is how the United States can best develop these bilateral relations to the benefit of democracy in Albania.
Report: The Elections in AlbaniaThursday, April 04, 1991
Taken as a whole, the Albanian elections cannot be considered free and fair. This does not mean, however, that the irregularities, intimidation and other problems encountered were necessarily sufficient to invalidate the results. The Party of Labor may well have won a majority of seats even if the election environment had been more free and fair, although it is questionable whether it would have still achieved the two-thirds benchmark critical for passing constitutional changes. Nevertheless, the very holding of these multi-party elections was a definite step forward. In the post-election period, the Democratic Party has refused to join the Party of Labor in any government coalition and has boycotted the Assembly until the perpetrators of a post-election crackdown on demonstrators which left several dead are identified. One of the most important and unanswered questions at present is the situation within the Party of Labor. Marty hard line leaders won election to the Assembly, but the current· President and Party First Secretary, Ramiz Alia, lost his seat, raising questions as to whether he can still lead the party and, if elected the new President as expected, will remain a powerful head of state. With or without further reform efforts, additional unrest can be expected in Albania. The country is now open to contact with the rest of the world and in dire need of foreign economic assistance. However, a slowdown in the pace of change -- let alone any rollback in the reforms undertaken to date -- will certainly be resisted by the population, the youth in particular, lead tonew waves of people seeking to leave the country and discourage foreign governments from extending any economic assistance other than purely humanitarian aid.
Referendum in the Soviet UnionSunday, March 17, 1991
Mikhail Gorbachev's March 17, 1991 referendum on maintaining the USSR as a "renewed federation" was the first in Soviet, or Russian, history. As the following report makes clear, the referendum was not merely an exercise in public opinion polling or a guide to policymakers. It was intended to give Gorbachev a popular mandate for pressuring the newly elected legislatures of the Baltic States and Soviet republics seeking independence or greater sovereignty. In this light, the referendum amounted to an attempt to use democratic methods to undermine the results of democracy. Its other purposes aside, however, Gorbachev's referendum does represent an aspect of the democratization of Soviet politics that has taken place since 1985. The Helsinki Commission has carefully tracked this process through public hearings and extensive staff reports on perestroika and on the Baltic States. In 1990, in accordance with its mandate to monitor and promote compliance with the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent CSCE documents, the Commission sent staffers to observe parliamentary elections in the Baltic States and the Soviet republics. A compendium of their reports was published in December 1990. This year, Commission staffers monitored the March 3 "counter-referendums" on independence held in Latvia and Estonia, at the invitation of their parliaments and governments. The Commission also sent staffers to observe the conduct of the voting on March 17 in Latvia, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and on March 31 observed Georgia's plebiscite on independence. The following report reflects their on-site observations, supplemented by subsequent published reportage about the referendum, and contains as well an analysis· of the referendum's implications. In retrospect, perhaps the most striking thing about the referendum is how little notice the Soviet and international media now pay to an event depicted as "historic." To some extent, the fast pace of change in Soviet politics precludes lingering on last month's news. But the lack of attention also reflects the referendum's minimal impact: as a stategem, it was flawed; as policy, it was irrelevant, since the jurisdictional disputes in the USSR between center and republics had already gone too far for mere strategems to be effective. In fact, the failure of the March referendum to deliver what its initiators sought was its greatest contribution to Soviet politics, since it helped produce the "April Pact" between Gorbachev and leaders of nine republics. That agreement, if followed through sincerely, promises to be a watershed in the decentralization and democratization of the Soviet Union, and may prove genuinely "historic."
The USSR In Crisis: State of the UnionWednesday, February 06, 1991
This hearing centered the economic and political crisis in the Soviet Union. The Commissioners praised the diligent work of Gorbachev by positively changing the human rights dimension in Eastern Europe. From multi-party participation to higher freedoms of speech and assembly, the Soviet Union has pivoted to international standard of human rights. Despite the reforms made towards the advancement of human rights the economic situation has never been so pronounced in recent memory. The economic challenges facing the people of the Soviet Union is affecting the political atmosphere in very concerning way- increased powers to the KGB and arms deals that violate past international treaties. The hearing reviewed whether the economic crisis is causing the Soviet state to use military methods to save the Soviet power.
Soviet Crackdown in the Baltic StatesThursday, January 17, 1991
This hearing, which Steny H. Hoyer presided over, came at a time during which the United States’ time was occupied elsewhere in the world (i.e. the Middle East). Therefore, the running time of this hearing was expected to be an hour, with a more in-depth hearing to follow later on. In any case, attendees discussed, from the view of the U.S., anyway, that the Baltic States (i.e. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) had all been illegally absorbed into what was then the Soviet Union. Likewise, the Baltic States had raised the issue that enforcement of conscription laws of the Soviet Union in these countries is in and of itself legal within the framework of the Geneva Convention. The consensus of the hearing was that the attempt by Moscow to crush democracy in the Baltic States must be met by the U.S. with the same resolve that the U.S. took in meeting similar attempts in other parts of the world, including collaboration with other countries.
Supreme Soviet Elections in AzerbaijanThursday, October 25, 1990
After long delays and one official postponement, the elections to the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet finally went off as planned on September 30. The late date of the Azerbaijani election reflects the region-wide instability in Transcaucasia: voters in Armenia chose their legislature only on May 20 and Georgia's elections (the last ones scheduled) took place on October 28, having been postponed from March. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Azerbaijan was peculiarly charged, even by today's Soviet standards. Azerbaijan was the only Soviet republic to hold its Supreme Soviet elections with its capital city, Baku, and other regions, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), in a state of emergency. This dubious distinction indicates the level of unresolved tensions in Azerbaijan as well as the determination of the central authorities in Moscow, abetted by the Communist Party of Azerbaijan (CPA), to keep tight reins on this strategically and economically vital republic.
Copenhagen Meeting on the Human DimensionWednesday, July 18, 1990
This Hearing was convened by Chairman Dennis DeConcini and Co-Chairman Steny H. Hoyer to address the Human Dimension of the of the Helsinki Final Act. In attendance were Ambassador Max Kampelmann, Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Copenhagen CSCE Conference on the Human Dimension, Prof. Thomas Buergenthal, public member of the U.S. Delegation, and Prof. Hurst Hannum, public member of the U.S. Delegation. Those in attendence discussed the state of human rights in the OSCE region and various humanitarian causes that should be emphasized in the coming sessions.
Elections in the Czech and Slovak Federal RepublicFriday, June 08, 1990
This report is based on the findings of a staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe to the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic from 6-11 June 1990. The staff met with representatives of several political parties and movements, as well as of the Electoral Commission. It also observed the voting and some aspects of the counting of ballots. The Commission wishes to thank the National Democratic and National Republican Institutes for International Affairs for allowing the staff delegation to be included in the activities of their international election observer mission to the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic.
By: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor
With Contributions from Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor
On June 24, Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the passage of controversial constitutional amendments last year that began Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The victors in this election are to preside over the transition to this new form of government and begin to shape the operation of its revamped institutions.
In accordance with its commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey formally invited the OSCE to observe the vote. This invitation paved the way for the OSCE’s first-ever full-scale deployment of election observers to Turkey. Although the OSCE observed previous elections in Turkey—including last year’s constitutional referendum—it had never done so with a full complement of hundreds of short-term observers that deploy all over the country to record their observations on election day. In the absence of short-term observers, OSCE observation missions rely primarily on a smaller cohort of long-term observers who spend as much as a month in the country monitoring every dimension of the campaign period and balloting. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.)
Altogether, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed 22 long-term observers and more than 300 short-term observers to observe the election across the country. Most STOs are drawn from cadres of experienced volunteers offered by individual OSCE participating States. In addition, the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE (OSCE PA) and Council of Europe (PACE) contributed 72 and 32 members of parliament and parliamentary staff, respectively, to serve as STOs.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly participates in OSCE PA election observation missions. What follows is a first-person account from two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff who served as short-term observers during the Turkish elections. These observations are not an authoritative account of the conduct of the Turkish election, however. Readers interested in such an account should review the OSCE’s official statement of preliminary findings and conclusions.
In the days before the election, experts from the OSCE’s ODIHR and the OSCE PA organize a series of in-depth briefings in Ankara to acquaint short-term observers with the context and process for the coming vote. In opening these briefings, Mr. Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Spanish parliamentarian tasked as the special coordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission, noted numerous ways in which this election was exceptional.
Turks would be voting under a nearly two-year-old state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The state of emergency gave Turkish President Erdogan sweeping powers to rule by decree and authorized provincial governors to curtail basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Presidential decrees purged tens of thousands of civil servants from their work, shuttered over a hundred news outlets, blocked thousands of websites, and contributed to the arrest of scores of independent journalists, often on dubious national security charges.
Sanchez Amor further commented that the transition to a presidential system and the country’s newly-approved election laws made this election especially complex. Most of the constitutional amendments approved in last year’s referendum would take effect after the election. The victorious presidential candidate, for instance, would be the first to assume unprecedented executive powers that international monitors and the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), criticized as undermining the separation of powers. Likewise, successful parliamentary candidates would take up seats in a somewhat neutered institution that is given no say in ministerial appointments and can be unilaterally dissolved by the president.
One of the constitutional amendments abolished a previous prohibition on new electoral laws taking effect less than 12 months before an election. This meant that the June election would be governed by election regulations passed in November and March that President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had muscled through parliament without any opposition support. Opposition leaders sharply criticized provisions in the laws that allowed the government to relocate voting locations on security grounds, loosened rules governing the police presence around polling stations, and weakened protections against election fraud by admitting ballots that are missing a required polling station stamp.
Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that one of the country’s major presidential candidates had been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 and was being forced to campaign from his jail cell. This treatment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was one of many restrictions severely disadvantaging the HDP.
Campaign banners of two opposition parties stretched across a primary avenue in downtown Ankara.
The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process.
Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage.
All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature.
Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. Election authorities could also use the admission of unstamped ballots to artificially diminish HDP’s share of the vote. In addition, several briefers noted that deadly violence could be used to intimidate voters. Indeed, less than two weeks before the election a campaign-related altercation in the south left three HDP supporters dead, along with the brother of an AKP candidate for parliament. Many briefers noted that the pro-government media had cast the AKP as the victim of the melee, where in reality the fight had been instigated and escalated by the ruling party’s side.
The opposition’s indictment of the fairness of the election was met by an AKP-led campaign to smear those who might tarnish perceptions of the credibility of the outcome. The OSCE observation mission was one of the targets of this campaign. The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country.
It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation.
We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day.
Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls.
We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for.
The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.)
Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day.
Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process.
With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station.
An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow.
Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC.
Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote.
This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials.
Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities.
Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters.
In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds.
At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after.
As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through.
Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room.
After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time.
Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results.
The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation.
Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated.
Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations.
Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots. In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank).
U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members.
Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour.
The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process.
Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary.
Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference.
A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation.
After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board.
Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square.
It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level.
The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended.
Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote.
Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!”
The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance.
During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system.
In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.
The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.