President Tayyip Erdogan celebrated what he said was a clear result in a referendum on Sunday to grant him sweeping new powers, but opponents said they would challenge the vote count which gave a narrow 51.3 percent lead to Erdogan’s supporters.
Nearly all ballots had been opened for counting, state-run Anadolu news agency said, although a lag between opening and counting them could see the lead tighten even further.
President Tayyip Erdogan declared victory in a referendum on Sunday to grant him sweeping powers in the biggest overhaul of modern Turkish politics, but opponents said the vote was marred by irregularities and they would challenge its result.
Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast and its three main cities, including the capital Ankara and the largest city Istanbul, looked set to vote “No” after a bitter and divisive campaign.
Erdogan said 25 million people had supported the proposal to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with an all-powerful presidency, giving the “Yes” camp 51.5 percent of the vote.
That appeared short of the decisive victory for which he and the ruling AK Party had aggressively campaigned. Nevertheless, thousands of flag-waving supporters rallied in Ankara and Istanbul in celebration.
“For the first time in the history of the Republic, we are changing our ruling system through civil politics,” Erdogan said, referring to the military coups which marred Turkish politics for decades. “That is why it is very significant.”
Erdogan himself survived a failed coup attempt last July, responding with a crackdown that has seen 47,000 people detained and 120,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs.
In Ankara, where Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addressed cheering supporters, convoys of cars honking horns clogged a main avenue as they headed towards the AK Party’s headquarters, their passengers waving flags from the windows.
But the head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said the legitimacy of the referendum was open to question and those who supported a “Yes” vote may have gone beyond the boundaries of the law.
The party earlier said it would demand a recount of up to 60 percent of the votes after Turkey’s High Electoral Board (YSK) announced it would count ballots which had not been stamped by its officials as valid unless they could be proved fraudulent.
Kilicdaroglu has accused Erdogan of seeking a “one-man regime”, and said the proposed changes would put the country in danger.
In some affluent neighborhoods in Istanbul, people took to the streets in protest while others banged pots and pans at home – a sign of dissent that was widespread during anti-Erdogan protests in 2013.
Turkey’s lira firmed to 3.65 to the dollar in Asian trade following the referendum, from 3.72 on Friday.
European politicians, however, who have had increasingly strained relations with Turkey, expressed concern.
Relations hit a low during the referendum campaign when EU countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, barred Turkish ministers from holding rallies in support of the changes.
Erdogan called the moves “Nazi acts” and said Turkey could reconsider ties with the European Union after many years of seeking EU membership.
Former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, who heads the liberal group of MEPs in the European Parliament, said Erdogan needed to change course, noting the result was very tight. “If Erdogan persists, EU should stop accession talks,” he said.
Manfred Weber, leader of the center-right grouping tweeted: “No matter the result: with his referendum Pres. Erdogan is splitting his country.”
After the vote Erdogan repeated his intention to review Turkey’s suspension of the death penalty, a step which would almost certainly spell the end of Ankara’s EU accession process.
“I will immediately discuss this issue with Yildirim and (nationalist party head) Devlet Bahceli,” Erdogan said. If presented with a proposal, he would approve it, the president said, adding he could also put it to another referendum.
Further deterioration in relations with the European Union could also jeopardize last year’s deal under which Turkey has curbed the flow of migrants – mainly refugees from wars in Syria and Iraq – into the bloc.
The referendum has bitterly divided the nation. Erdogan and his supporters say the changes are needed to amend the current constitution, written by generals following a 1980 military coup, confront the security and political challenges Turkey faces, and avoid the fragile coalition governments of the past.
“This is our opportunity to take back control of our country,” said self-employed Bayram Seker, 42, after voting “Yes” in Istanbul.
“I don’t think one-man rule is such a scary thing. Turkey has been ruled in the past by one man,” he said, referring to modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Opponents say it is a step towards greater authoritarianism. Erdogan and the AK Party enjoyed a disproportionate share of media coverage in the buildup to the vote, while the leaders of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have been in jail for months.
“I voted ‘No’ because I don’t want this whole country and its legislative, executive and judiciary ruled by one man. This would not make Turkey stronger or better as they claim. This would weaken our democracy,” said Hamit Yaz, 34, a ship’s captain, after voting in Istanbul.
Proponents of the reform argue that it would end the current “two-headed system” in which both the president and parliament are directly elected, a situation they argue could lead to deadlock. Until 2014, presidents were chosen by parliament.
The government says Turkey, faced with conflict to the south in Syria and Iraq, and a security threat from Islamic State and PKK militants, needs strong and clear leadership to combat terrorism.
The package of 18 amendments would abolish the office of prime minister and give the president the authority to draft the budget, declare a state of emergency and issue decrees overseeing ministries without parliamentary approval.
(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall, Ece Toksabay, Gulsen Solaker, Tulay Karadeniz, Orhan Coskun, Ercan Gurses in Ankara; Isabel Coles, Can Sezer, Birsen Altayli, Behiye Selin Taner, Ceyda Caglayan, Ebru Tuncay and Akin Aytekin in Istanbul, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Writing by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler; Editing by Keith Weir, Adrian Croft and David Dolan)
Erdogan wins Turkey referendum as opposition cries foul
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan narrowly won a historic referendum on Sunday that will tighten his grip on power, but the knife-edge result left the country bitterly divided and the opposition crying foul.
The sweeping constitutional changes approved in the vote create a presidential system that will grant Erdogan more power than any leader since modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his successor Ismet Inonu.
The result could also have even wider implications for Turkey which joined NATO in 1952 and for the last half-century has set its sights on joining the European Union.
The ‘Yes’ campaign won 51.4 percent of the vote against 48.6 percent for ‘No’, the election commission said in figures quoted by state news agency Anadolu, in a count based on 99.5 percent of the ballot boxes. Turnout was a high 85 percent.
As huge crowds of flag-waving supporters celebrated on the streets, Erdogan praised Turkey for taking a “historic decision”.
“With the people, we have realised the most important reform in our history,” he added.
But opposition supporters in anti-Erdogan districts of Istanbul showed their dissatisfaction by bashing pots and pans with kitchen utensils to create a noisy protest. Hundreds also took to the streets in the areas of Besiktas and Kadikoy.
Supreme Election Board chief Sadi Guven confirmed that the ‘Yes’ camp had emerged victorious, but the opposition has vowed to challenge the outcome.
– ‘New page opened’ –
The referendum was held under a state of emergency that has seen 47,000 people arrested in an unprecedented crackdown after a failed military putsch against Erdogan in July last year.
In a nail-biting end to a frenetic campaign, the ‘No’ share of the vote climbed as more ballots were counted, after lagging well behind in the early count, but failed to overtake the ‘Yes’ votes.
“This is a decision made by the people. In our democracy’s history, a new page has opened,” said Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, whose job will disappear under the constitutional changes.
In a television interview on Friday Erdogan had predicted a far clearer victory saying polls showed a 55-60 percent share of the vote.
But voting patterns showed Turkey deeply divided over the changes, with the ‘No’ vote victorious in the country’s three biggest cities.
The ‘Yes’ vote held up strongly in Erdogan’s Anatolian heartland but the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal regions and Kurdish-dominated southeast backed the ‘No’ camp.
In a major disappointment for the president, the ‘No’ vote was just ahead in his hometown of Istanbul and in the capital Ankara and clearly ahead in the third city of Izmir.
A statement issued by European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said that in view of the closeness of the result, the Turkish authorities need to seek the “broadest possible national consensus” for the changes.
Erdogan made relations with the EU a key issue in his referendum campaign, lambasting Brussels for failing to make progress on Ankara’s stalled accession talks and he accused Germany and the Netherlands of acting like the Nazis when they barred pro-government rallies.
– ‘Totally invalid’ –
Turkey’s two main opposition parties said they would challenge the results over alleged violations.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said it would challenge two-thirds of the votes, saying: “There is an indication of a 3-4 percentage point manipulation of the vote.”
Republican People’s Party (CHP) chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu said the actions of the election authorities “caused the referendum’s legitimacy to be questioned” insisting that the ‘No’ side had won at least 50 percent of votes cast.
“Believe me, this election is not over,” deputy CHP leader Erdal Aksunger told CNN Turk, quoted by the Dogan news agency. “This is totally invalid. We are declaring this here.”
The opposition had already complained that the referendum was conducted on unfair terms, with ‘Yes’ posters ubiquitous on the streets and opposition voices squeezed from the media.
Closely watched on Monday will be the initial assessment of the international observer mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
– ‘Robust and muscular’ –
Erdogan again warned Brussels he would sign any bill agreed by parliament to reinstate capital punishment, a move that would automatically end Turkey’s EU bid.
If the opposition failed to support the bill, Erdogan said another referendum could be held on reinstating the death penalty.
Western reactions to the referendum will be crucial after Erdogan accused Turkey’s allies of failing to show sufficient solidarity in the wake of the failed coup.
“We would like other countries and institutions to show respect to the decision of the nation,” Erdogan said.
The new system would dispense with the office of prime minister and centralise the entire executive bureaucracy under the president, giving Erdogan the direct power to appoint ministers.
It is due to come into force after elections in November 2019. Erdogan, who became president in 2014 after serving as premier from 2003, could then seek two more five-year terms.
“I don’t think he (Erdogan) will reverse course. I don’t think Erdogan will change the robust and muscular approach to politics that he has adopted so far,” said Fadi Hakura, Turkey expert at London-based Chatham House think tank.