US State Department watching, following, monitoring Turkey ‘very closely’

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Mark Toner, spokesman for the US Department of State

Mark Toner, spokesman for the US Department of State, reiterated many times at a press briefing on Thursday that the United States is “monitoring,” “following” and “watching” Turkey “very closely” but seemed unaware of the issues referred to by reporters, who were questioning the fairness and potential repercussions of a referendum in Turkey on Sunday that will basically concentrate power over the executive, legislative and judicial branches in the hands of the country’s president.

In response to a reporter who, citing a UN report released that day, said that “if the constitutional amendments pass on Sunday, then … existing major violations of social and cultural rights in Turkey will even increase,” and other international organizations which conclude that “Turkey’s democratic standards, separation of powers, and many other values will be basically wiped out,” Toner said: “… we’re obviously following this issue very closely. … we are concerned about the quality of Turkey’s democracy,” adding that the US and Turkey are “strong allies and partners” and therefore “can have those kinds of conversations.”

Turkey will hold a referendum on April 16 that will change its system of governance from a parliamentary to a presidential model and will greatly expand the power of the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Toner then erroneously referred to the “OSCE’s final report” from February rather than the UN report mentioned by the reporter and said, “We’re looking at that and studying it very closely, but we’re going to, obviously, watch this very closely and – as it moves forward, the referendum, and hope that it’s carried out in such a way that guarantees and strengthens democracy in Turkey.”

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) fear the reforms to be voted in the referendum will fuel authoritarianism, allowing Erdoğan to appoint and dismiss government ministers, dissolve Parliament, issue decrees, declare emergency rule, appoint figures to key positions, including the judiciary, take back the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which pushed the legislation through to enable the constitutional changes, and govern until 2029.

When pressed on the fairness of the referendum in question due to severe limitations on campaigning, the spokesman appeared to be unaware that citizens favoring a “no” vote in the poll are facing heavy restrictions and intimidation in expressing their viewpoint, the spokesman said, “[W]e never want to see, in any case, as part of any kind of free and fair electoral process, any kind of limitation on all sides to express their viewpoints peacefully. So again, we’re watching this very closely.”

Responding to an assertion from a reporter that thousands of dissidents, including the leader of the main Kurdish opposition party, are in prison and unable to campaign for “no” votes, making for a poor environment for the holding of a referendum, Toner said there are election observers who will determine whether or not the vote is free and fair and that “[w]e’re watching this. We’re monitoring it very closely.”

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