Michael Rubin: How Erdogan Rigged the Election That Makes Him a Dictator

A security guard watches as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan visits Eyup Sultan mosque in Istanbul on April 17. Michael Rubin writes that beyond arresting tens of thousands of opponents, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gamed the system to guarantee himself victory. Murad Sezer/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

In the wake of Turkey's April 16 referendum that purported to approve constitutional amendments that changed Turkey's system of government and eviscerated the independent judiciary, independent observers have concluded that the vote was neither free nor fair.

Beyond simply arresting tens of thousands of opponents, it seems that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gamed the system in order to guarantee himself victory. An observer from inside Turkey explains (edited slightly for clarity and grammar):

Apparently, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) arranged illegally with the Supreme Election Board and with several voting districts around the country to give ballots out to AKP people the day before the voting. These were given to poor people and others wishing to earn money for a vote.

The ballots were marked "yes" in front, but they lacked the official stamp issued at the polling location on the back. This was done deliberately because those people were to use the pre-prepared ballot in the ballot box and then return the ballot with the official seal which they received at the polling station. They then received between 350-400 Turkish liras, about 100 dollars.

If it seemed that the "no" vote was ahead in initial tallying, then the Supreme Election Board would rule the referendum invalid due to a large number of unstamped ballots. But if it looked like "yes" could win, then those votes would be declared valid.

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The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) says that there were more than 2.5 million of these irregular ballots; other estimates range between 1 million and 4 million. Even the low end of this range would be enough to change the results of the referendum.

The CHP has called on the Supreme Election Board to nullify the referendum results. After all, its official guidelines mandate the stamping of both ballot and sealed envelope.

As Turkish journalist and analyst Ilhan Tanir points out, the precedent of accepting such ballots is not with the government. Four years ago, in Bitlis, the government invalidated election results because of the inclusion of ballots lacking official seals.

Related: Michael Rubin: Turkey is headed for a bloodbath

For the first time in recent memory, Turkish opposition leaders neither conceded defeat nor congratulated the victor on his win. Nor did the leaders of any democratic nation with one exception: President Donald Trump did call to congratulate the Turkish leader, putting the United States in the illustrious company of Azerbaijan, Guinea, Bahrain, Djibouti and Qatar, not to mention Hamas.

Erdogan may want to claim victory and put the referendum behind him. He has declared that the result ends all debate. It may not be so easy, however. Especially when the real results suggest the Turkish people did not support the system of government over which Erdogan now presides.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.