ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a historic referendum Sunday that will greatly expand the powers of his office, although opposition parties questioned the outcome and said they would challenge the results.
With 99 percent of the ballots counted, the “yes” vote stood at 51.37 percent, while the “no” vote was 48.63 percent, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency. The head of Turkey’s electoral board confirmed the “yes” victory and said final results will be declared in 11-12 days.
Although the margin fell short of the sweeping victory Erdogan had sought in the landmark referendum, it could nevertheless cement his hold on power in Turkey and is expected to have a huge effect on the country’s long-term political future and its international relations.
In his first remarks from Istanbul, Erdogan struck a conciliatory tone, thanking all voters no matter how they cast their ballots and calling the referendum a “historic decision.”
“April 16 is the victory of all who said ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ of the whole 80 million, of the whole of Turkey,” Erdogan told reporters in address that was televised live.
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, Erdogan said he would take up the issue with the country’s political leaders, adding that the question could be put to another referendum if the political leaders could not agree.
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 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 percent and 60 percent 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.
The pro-Kurdish opposition party, which also opposed the constitutional changes, said it plans to object to two-thirds of the ballots.
More than 55 million people in the country were registered to vote, while another 1.3 million Turks cast ballots abroad. The ballots themselves did not include the referendum question itself — 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.
Erdogan and his supporters had argued the “Turkish-style” presidential system would bring stability and prosperity in a country rattled by a failed coup last year that left more than 200 people dead, and a series of devastating attacks by the Islamic State group and Kurdish militants.
But opponents fear the changes will lead to autocratic one-man rule, ensuring that the 63-year-old Erdogan, who has been accused of repressing rights and freedoms, could govern until 2029 with few checks and balances.
Eager voters lined up at one Istanbul polling station before it opened at 8 a.m.
“I don’t want to get on a bus with no brake system. A one-man system is like that,” said Husnu Yahsi, 61, who added that he voted “no.”
In another Istanbul neighbourhood, a “yes” voter expressed full support for the president.
“Yes, yes, yes! Our leader is the gift of God to us,” said Mualla Sengul. “We will always support him. He’s governing so well.”
Erdogan came to power in 2003 as prime minister and served in that role until becoming Turkey’s first directly elected president in 2014.
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.
The vote came as Turkey has been buffeted by problems. Erdogan survived a coup attempt last July, which he has blamed on his former ally and current nemesis Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric living in the United States. Gulen has denied involvement.
Still, a widespread government crackdown has targeted followers of Gulen and other government opponents, branding them terrorists. A state of emergency has been imposed.
About 100,000 people — including judges, teachers, academics, doctors, journalists, military officials and police — have lost their jobs in the crackdown, and more than 40,000 have been arrested. Hundreds of media outlets and non-governmental organizations have been shut down.
Turkey has also suffered renewed violence between Kurdish militants and security forces in the country’s volatile southeast, as well as a string of bombings, some attributed to the Islamic State group, which is active across the border in Syria.
The war in Syria has led to some 3 million refugees crossing into Turkey. Erdogan sent troops into Syria to help opposition Syrian forces clear a border area from the threat posed by Islamic State militants.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with Europe have been increasingly tense, particularly after Erdogan branded Germany and the Netherlands as Nazis for not allowing Turkish ministers to campaign for the “yes” vote among expatriate Turks.
Story by Elena Becatoros, Suzan Fraser, and Zeynep Bilginsoy.
Fraser reported from Ankara. Bram Janssen in Istanbul and Mucahit Ceylan in Diyarbakir also contributed to this report.