Erdogan's criticism of election observers is deeply troubling

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Michael Georg Link is director of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)This past weekend, voters in Turkey went to the polls to make an important choice about the future of their country and how it will be governed.

In Sunday's referendum, they were asked to provide a simple answer -- "Yes" or "No" -- to a not-so-simple package of constitutional amendments: 18 separate changes, affecting 72 articles of the country's basic laws.
Taken together, they shift political power significantly from the parliament to the President.
    The observers sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR, of which I am the director, spent the month leading up to and including referendum day following and assessing virtually all aspects of the referendum. The assessment contained in the preliminary statement the observers issued Monday identified significant shortcomings.
    The public reaction to that assessment on the part of the Turkish authorities, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been harsh, and has questioned the role of observers. This is unfortunate, as the purpose of the statement, and of ODIHR's mandate in general, is to assist OSCE participating states, including Turkey, in improving their electoral processes.
    Our preliminary statement points to where improvements are needed.
    The fact that this broad, complex set of constitutional amendments was reduced to a "Yes" or "No" vote -- counter to good practice for referendums -- is only the most obvious example.
    Less obvious, perhaps, but more troubling are those issues we identified that ultimately tilted the playing field in favor of one side in the contest -- the "Yes" campaign.
    This was the case, for example, in the decision as to who was allowed to participate fully in the campaign. Just 10 of the 92 registered parties in the country met the legal eligibility requirements to campaign, and civil society organizations were shut out of the process. Leading national officials, including Erdogan, as well as many more at the local level, actively campaigned for the "Yes" side, while efforts by "No" campaigners were obstructed.
    This was also the case when it came to coverage of the referendum campaign in the media. The laws governing the process do not provide for equal coverage of the two sides but give preference to the President and the ruling party in the allocation of free airtime. One regulation passed under the state of emergency, introduced after the failed coup last July, removed sanctions on media outlets for biased coverage, sending a clear signal the principles of impartiality and balance in reporting didn't matter. Our media monitoring results showed the "Yes" campaign dominated the coverage.
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    The campaign rhetoric used by some senior national and local officials equated "No" supporters with terrorist sympathizers, while those same "No" campaigners in numerous cases faced police interventions or violent scuffles at their events.
    The political environment for the entire process was heavily influenced by the state of emergency that remains in effect, put in place following the failed coup.
    It is clear that governments in all democratic societies have the responsibility to provide for the security of those living in their countries and of the democratic system itself. That the Turkish authorities had a duty to take measures following the failed coup is not in question.
    At the same time, a balance has to be found that ensures fundamental freedoms at the center of truly democratic systems are protected. While there had been undue limitations in the Turkish Constitution even before the events of July, the freedoms of assembly and speech, for example, were even further restricted under the extraordinary state-of-emergency powers -- particularly as a result of measures introduced by provincial governors.
    The assessment by our observation mission, together with observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, highlighted these and other areas where the referendum process fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections as well as of Turkey's own laws.
    In about eight weeks we will release our final report on the referendum, including not only an assessment of the process in greater depth but also a set of recommendations on how electoral processes can be improved. As in any country, whether the Turkish authorities consider following up on these recommendations comes down to political will.
    For this reason, harsh statements by senior officials, including Erdogan, about our organization and our assessment of the referendum are cause for concern. These have included strong criticism of the statement, and even a call on the OSCE monitors to "know their place."
    The simple answer to this criticism is that election observation has an important place in promoting the principles and standards that Turkey has signed onto as an OSCE participating state. It is my hope that, given this, our assessment will ultimately be taken by the Turkish authorities for what it is -- an effort in good faith by our office to help improve electoral processes in Turkey.
    This is the mandate ODIHR has been given by all 57 countries in the OSCE, a mandate that we follow in our observation activities across the entire OSCE region.
    CNN's Becky Anderson put some of the above questions concerning the Turkish referendum to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a recent interview, which you can watch in full here.