Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won a historic referendum that will greatly expand the powers of his office, although opposition parties said they would challenge the results. With nearly all ballots counted, the “yes” vote stood at 51.41%, while the “no” vote was 48.59%, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.
The head of Turkey’s electoral board confirmed the “yes” victory and said final results would be declared in 11-12 days. Although the margin fell short of the sweeping victory Mr Erdogan had sought in the landmark referendum, it could nevertheless cement his hold on power in Turkey.
The result is expected to have a huge effect on the country’s long-term political future and its international relations. The 18 constitutional amendments that will come into effect after the next election, scheduled for 2019, will abolish the office of the prime minister and hand sweeping executive powers to the president.
Mr Erdogan, who first came to power in 2003 as prime minister, had argued a “Turkish-style” presidential system would bring stability and prosperity to the country. Turkey was rocked by a failed coup last year that left more than 200 people dead, and has been hit by a series of devastating attacks by the Islamic State group and Kurdish militants.
In his first remarks from Istanbul after the vote count showed the amendments winning approval, Mr Erdogan struck a conciliatory tone, thanking all voters no matter how they cast their ballots and calling the referendum a “historic decision”.
He said: “April 16 is the victory of all who said ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ of the whole 80 million, of the whole of Turkey.” But he quickly reverted to a more abrasive style when addressing thousands of flag-waving supporters in Istanbul.
“There are those who are belittling the result. They shouldn’t try, it will be in vain,” he said. “It’s too late now.” Responding to chants from the crowd to reinstate the death penalty, Mr Erdogan said he would take up the issue with the country’s political leaders, adding that the question could be put to another referendum.
He also took a dig at international critics. During the referendum campaign, Ankara’s relations soured with some European countries, notably Germany and the Netherlands. Mr Erdogan branded officials in the two nations as Nazis for not allowing his ministers to campaign for the expatriate vote there.
“We want other countries and organizations to show respect to the decision of our people. We expect countries that we accept as our allies to show more sensitivity to our fight against terrorism,” he said.
Opponents had argued the constitutional changes would give too much power to a man who they say has shown increasingly autocratic tendencies.
Opposition parties complained of a number of irregularities in the voting, and were particularly incensed by an electoral board decision announced on Sunday afternoon to accept as valid ballots that did not bear the official stamp.
“The Supreme Electoral Board changed rules mid-game, after the ballot envelopes were opened, in a way contrary to laws,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition People’s Republican Party.
Earlier, the party’s vice chairman, Erdal Aksunger, said it would challenge between 37% and 60% of the ballot boxes and accused Anadolu’s results of being inaccurate. But electoral board head Sadi Guven defended the decision.
“There is no question of changing the rules in the middle of the game,” he said.
A pro-Kurdish opposition party that also opposed the constitutional changes said it plans to object to two-thirds of the ballots.
Given the contested outcome, Fadi Hakura, Turkey specialist at the London-based think tank Chatham House, described Mr Erdogan’s win as a “pyrrhic victory that comes at a huge political cost”.
He said: “The result will depend on how far the opposition will take their claim of irregularity in the voting, and what the international reaction will be.”
Initial reaction from abroad was cautious. Senior EU officials – EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn – said they “take note of the reported results” and were awaiting a report from international election observers.
The referendum campaign was highly divisive and heavily one-sided, with the “yes” side dominating the airwaves and billboards. Supporters of the “no” vote have complained of intimidation, including beatings, detentions and threats.
More than 55 million people were registered to vote, while another 1.3 million expatriates cast ballots abroad. The ballots themselves did not include the referendum question – it was assumed to be understood.
The changes will allow the president to appoint ministers, senior government officials and half the members of Turkey’s highest judicial body, as well as to issue decrees and declare states of emergency.
They set a limit of two five-year terms for presidents and also allow the president to remain at the helm of a political party. Opponents fear the changes will lead to autocratic one-man rule, ensuring that the 63-year-old Mr Erdogan, who has been accused of repressing rights and freedoms, could govern until 2029 with few checks and balances.
In Istanbul, hundreds of demonstrators opposed to the amendments marched in a central neighbourhood late on Sunday, clanging pots and pans and chanting: “This is just the beginning, the struggle will continue.”