Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared victory in a referendum on whether to expand his powers by creating a presidential system of government.
With more than 99 percent of the ballots counted, election officials say 51.3 percent of voters supported the call to give Turkey’s presidency sweeping new powers.
The set of 18 constitutional amendments were voted upon in a simple “yes” or “no” vote that could allow Erdogan to stay in office until 2029.
Erdogan late on April 16 said voters made a “historic decision” about the “most important reform” in Turkey’s history.
He said unofficial results showed 25 million voters supporting the expansion of presidential powers — a winning margin of about 1.3 million votes.
Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), is demanding a recount of up to 60 percent of the ballots and has said it will challenge 37 percent of the ballots that were counted.
The CHP criticized the country’s election commission for a last-minute change to the rules about which ballots would be counted in the tightly contested referendum, saying the ruling opened the way for fraud.
Under the ruling by the Supreme Election Board (YSK), ballot papers that were not officially stamped were still counted as valid unless they were proven to have been brought into the counting process from outside.
Election officials said just over 48 percent of voters said “no” to the constitutional changes, and that 86 percent of eligible voters had cast a ballot.
When the amendments take effect in 2019, they will weaken Turkey’s parliament, eliminate the post of prime minister, and give the president more control over the judiciary.
The future of already strained relations between the European Union and Turkey is also at stake, with analysts predicting that a victory for Erdogan could lead to an outright break in relations between Ankara and Brussels.
In Istanbul, Erdogan was applauded by supporters after he cast his ballot in a school near his home.
Erdogan told reporters that a “yes” vote was a “choice for change and transformation,” and that he believes in the “democratic common sense” of Turkey’s people.
“We need to make a decision that is beyond the ordinary,” he told reporters, adding that he hoped the country will make the “expected” decision.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim — who also campaigned for a “yes” vote — cast his ballot in the western province of Izmir, saying that “whatever the result is, we will hold it in high esteem.”
Just hours after polls opened, Turkey’s state-run news agency said two people were killed in a fight between two families outside a polling station in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir.
The private Dogan news agency reported that the deadly brawl was the result of “differences in political opinion.”
Opinion polls published just days ahead of the vote suggested a narrow majority of Turks would vote in favor of the amendments, which would lead to the biggest change in Turkey’s system of governance since the modern republic was founded in 1923.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) argued that an ongoing insurgency by Kurdish separatists, an attempted military coup last July, repeated terrorist attacks in the country, and the influx of more than 2 million refugees fleeing the war in neighboring Syria created the need for a strong presidency that can streamline its decisions and better steer the country through its challenges.
The leadership of the opposition National Movement Party (MHP) also called for a “yes” vote after reaching an undisclosed deal with the ruling AKP.
However, five lawmakers in the MHP campaigned against the proposed amendments and polls showed that as many as two-thirds of the party’s support base were opposed to the measures.
Turkey’s second-largest party, the CHP, campaigned against the amendments, which would take effect in 2019 if approved.
CHP lawmaker Silina Dogan has charged that the authoritarian nature of the amendments would bring an end to Turkey’s hopes of ever joining the European Union.
A pro-Kurdish opposition group, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) also campaigned against the proposed amendments, saying they are undemocratic and violate the principle of judicial independence.
Critics in Turkey have gone as far as to say the new system of government would be a kind of “elected dictatorship” without any separation of powers, leaving the parliament without legislative authority and unable to hold the president accountable for misdeeds.
Western critics also have said the amendments would concentrate too much power in the hands of the president.
Human Rights Watch has said the proposals pose a huge threat to human rights, the rule of law, and Turkey’s democratic future because they will “concentrate unchecked power” in Erdogan’s hands.
The Council of Europe has said it is deeply concerned about whether the amendments would guarantee the separation of powers in Turkey, proper checks and balances between the different branches of government, or the independence of the judiciary — adding that all are a “prerequisite for democratic societies.”
European Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks issued a report on April 12 expressing “grave concern” that the constitutional revisions would reduce the autonomy of Turkey’s already weak judiciary.
Muiznieks said the proposed amendments also did not address “serious shortcomings” in Turkey’s constitution on human rights and freedom of expression.
Earlier in April, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a visit to Ankara that the proposed amendments would amount to a “profound political transformation.”
Merkel also urged that “everything should be done to ensure that separation of powers and plurality of opinion are guaranteed in Turkey.”
‘Burning Bridges’ With EU
The campaign ahead of the April 16 vote has also been marred by controversy.
The OSCE’s election monitoring group, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, noted on April 7 that the campaign and vote itself were taking place under a declared state of emergency following the failed coup attempt of July 2016.
The OSCE monitors also noted that fundamental freedoms have been curtailed under that state of emergency, with thousands of citizens detained or dismissed from their jobs — including civil servants, judges, journalists, and opposition party members.
Opponents of the amendments allege they have faced state suppression while supporters of the “yes” campaign have been able to use state media, facilities, and funds to organize campaign events.
Attempts by Erdogan and his allies to stage campaign rallies targeting Turkish voters who live in the EU faced restrictions or cancellations in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland — leading to diplomatic disputes with Ankara.
On April 13, Erdogan described Europe as a “rotting continent” that was “no longer a center of democracy, human rights, and liberty but of repression, violence, and Nazism.”
Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Ankara who is now an analyst with Carnegie Europe, says Erdogan’s Nazi jibes have outraged EU leaders to the point that he may have “burned his bridges” with Brussels “when it comes to personal relations.”
Pierini tells RFE/RL that if the constitutional amendments are approved by Turkish voters, a complete break in relations between Ankara and Brussels will seem inevitable.
“We will have a system that has no equivalent in the Western world,” he says. “It is more power concentrated in one man than anywhere” in the West, “a hyper-presidential system without much checks and balances. This will be really the one-man rule system and clearly in contradiction with EU norms.”
Other European experts say the optimistic scenario in terms of relations between Turkey and Brussels is that the rejection of the amendments by voters, or a narrow victory for the “yes” vote, might lead Erdogan to temper his combative attitude toward the EU and try to improve relations.
Credits| Radio Free Europe