Turkey recently called snap elections to be held June 24, even as it extended the state of emergency for a seventh time since a failed coup attempt in 2016. And in the wake of a 2017 constitutional referendum that vested extraordinary powers in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, observers warn that Turkey is on the fast track to authoritarianism.
While not part of the European Union, Turkey is member of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The court retains the force of law over contracting states and has previously ruled on contentious issues from prisoners’ right to vote to the treatment of terrorism suspects in custody. However, since the coup attempt, it rejected several applications regarding systemic human rights abuses and the undemocratic process in the 2017 Turkish referendum. Why the change?
Research on the court illustrates how avoiding this political crisis could affect the future of democracy and protection of human rights in Turkey and beyond.
Why the April 2017 referendum results were contested
International observers and domestic opposition groups raised serious concerns about the April 2017 referendum. Erdogan, running up against term limits, introduced a system in which he could serve three consecutive five-year terms. The result was an unparalleled presidential system, granting sweeping executive powers over the parliament and judiciary. The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe observed that the amendments represent “a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey.”
The vote itself raised several red flags. The referendum was conducted under the state of emergency. Many journalists and members of parliament were jailed in the weeks before the vote, and the media increasingly controlled by Erdogan gave little voice to the remaining opposition. And, on the day of the referendum, the election board lifted a requirement that the ballot envelopes be double-stamped. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe pointed out that this curious last-minute decision “undermined an important safeguard against fraud” and concluded that the referendum took place on an “unlevel playing field.”
The small margin (51 percent) by which the “yes” vote won further raised suspicions about the possible impact of the unstamped votes. Soon after the elections, the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party cried foul.
Why the court rejected Turkey’s referendum case
The ECtHR’s convention refers to member states’ obligations to “hold free elections at reasonable intervals.” The court, however, contrived to dismiss the case: A referendum, it contended, is a different matter than an election.
The court’s reasoning is consistent with its previous case law, including a recent ruling regarding a Scottish independence referendum. The judges turned down the opportunity to reconsider their stance on referendums, despite other organizations’ questioning the Turkish referendum’s legitimacy.
In June’s snap elections, Turkish voters will again be casting their ballots during a state of emergency. A leading presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, is in jail. Unstamped envelopes will still be accepted as valid.
A changing approach to human rights violations in Turkey
The referendum is not the only Turkish claim on which the court has passed. Since the July 2016 coup attempt, 150,000 public service workers have been banned from their jobs by executive decrees. Under pressure from the Council of Europe, Turkey created an ad hoc commission that began to review applications related to the state of emergency in July 2017. The ECtHR dismissed the applications regarding the purges and directed them to the ad hoc commission. The special commission, however, is directly under executive control and is unlikely to adjudicate impartially. Legal scholars estimate that it may take as many as 10 years for an applicant to exhaust domestic remedies — a requirement before seeking justice at the ECtHR.
The ECtHR has not always been reticent in the face of systemic human rights violations. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the court adjudicated on thousands of grave human rights violations committed against the Kurdish population in southeast Turkey, including forced disappearances and village burnings.
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