HRW: Referendum Campaign In Turkey Lacks Fairness, Free Debate

Less than two weeks into Turkey’s historic referendum on a constitutional amendment that will give the Turkish president tremendous powers, campaign process appears to take place in unfair conditions, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report.

As Turkey’s momentous day approaches, defenders and opponents of a referendum are pitching their arguments to convince people in a campaign period littered with mounting government pressure, daily arrests of naysayers, and the emergence of new obstacles for No campaign.

If accepted by popular vote, the constitutional amendment is bound to unwind constitutional and legislative checks on presidential authority, subduing parliamentary into a merely symbolic position with no power at all, paving the way for the potential emergence of a one-man rule, a fearsome possibility that many Turks anticipate with dread.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan placed all his charisma and political clout behind the Yes campaign, taking a leading role to promote his ruling AKP’s political campaign with no regard for whatever constitution says about presidential impartiality regarding day-to-day politics. According to the constitutional provision, a president must refrain from political partisanship, must stay above daily politics to preserve impartiality.

With all state-controlled media, pliant mainstream media and openly pro-government press outlets at his disposal to work for advancing Yes during the campaign, Mr. Erdogan’s opponents are devoid of similar opportunities.

Their arduous task of campaigning has run into series of troubles. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) leaves great latitude to local authorities to run roughshod, blocking free and fair campaign for opponents with arbitrary decisions that defy basic legal norms and rules.

Especially, government-appointed rulers who govern Kurdish-led municipalities after mayors have been imprisoned in a political crackdown in the Southeast, exploit the leeway granted by the government at such a level that leaves little room for People’s Democracy Party (HDP). In one case, campaign song of the party was banned.

And their mayors, party officials, including co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, are all in prison. The naysayers face physical attacks during the campaign.

A 21-year-old young man who released a video that soon went viral in social media, promoting No vote, found himself arrested a day after the debut of the video. He even said toward the end of the video that if the video goes viral, he may face imprisonment. And the government proved him right.

The Venice Commission has expressed concerns both about the constitutional changes and holding referendum under the state of emergency.

“The extremely unfavorable environment for journalism and the increasingly impoverished and one-sided public debate that prevail in Turkey at this point question the very possibility of holding a meaningful, inclusive democratic referendum campaign about the desirability of the amendments,” the Commission said.

In a detailed review, HRW echoed similar concerns, taking a technical and legal view that reflects a deep dread about an authoritarian turn in Turkey, a process that may further push Turkey to drift away from Western democracies.

HRW brings into focus the conditions under which the referendum takes places. “The situation severely restricts the possibility for open public debate on the constitutional amendments and also for political debate by all elected parties in parliament,” HRW said after detailing about the political clampdown on HDP and media.

Independent media in Turkey have been all but silenced, with over 160 media outlets and publishing houses closed down since July 2016, and over 120 journalists and media workers currently jailed pending trial, it noted.

To make matters worse, more than 135,000 civil servants have been dismissed by the government in a series of sweeping purge waves since July 15 coup without due process or concrete evidence of wrongdoing, while 47,000 people are in jail pending trial over terrorism and coup-related charges.

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