Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 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 nearly all ballots counted, the "yes" vote stood at 51.41 percent, while the "no" vote was 48.59 percent, 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.
Turkey's current constitution was adopted in 1982 after a military coup two years earlier. The new constitution, approved on Sunday, is to include 18 changes that will affect the lives of Turkey's 79 million citizens.
A finger in every judicial, govermental pie
Under the new constitution, the president will have broader powers for direct election to senior appointments in the administration, including ministers. In addition, the president will be able to appoint a number of deputies, and the role of prime minister, who is currently held by a Binali Yıldırım, will be abolished altogether.
The constitutional changes will also bring about a real shake-up in the country's judicial system—which Erdoğan accused of being influenced by the supporters of his former ally and current nemesis Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric living in the United States
From now on, the President will elect four members of the Supreme Council of Justices and Prosecutors (HSYK)—the council from which judges are appointed in the country and also responsible for removing judges from office when necessary. Parliament will elect seven additional council members. Military courts, which have so far led to the conviction of many officers and had even sentenced former prime minister Adnan Menderes to death after a coup in 1960, will be closed and dismantled.
According to the new constitution, in case of an "uprising against the homeland" or "acts of violence that threaten the division of the people," the president himself can impose a prolonged state of emergency on the entire country. The president can enact a state of emergency without further approval from the parliament. Such a state of emergency will up to last six months—in contrast to three months under the existing constitution—and the parliament can then extend the emergency four months at a time, as requested by the president.
Turkey has twice expanded the state of emergency declared after the coup attempt on July 15.
The number of members of the Turkish parliament will be increased from 550 to 600, while the minimum age of lawmakers will be changed from 25 to 18. Parliamentary elections will be held every five years—instead of four—and on the day of presidential elections. Parliament will still have the authority to initiate, amend and remove legislation. If the president is charged or suspected of a crime, the parliament will have the authority to request an investigation.
The President must be a Turkish citizen over the age of 40, and may be a member of a political party. According to the current constitution, the president must be "impartial" and without any party affiliation, though Erdoğan's opponents accuse him of total contempt of this article. According to the constitution, Erdoğan will be able to head the AKP party he founded.
Erdoğan was elected president in August 2014 after more than a decade as prime minister in the first direct presidential elections in the country. The constitutional amendment stipulates that the next presidential and parliamentary elections will be held simultaneously on November 3, 2019. The victorious president will be given a five-year term and two possible terms.
For this reason, Erdoğan could possibly remain in power for two more terms beyond the years he has held until now—and thus will remain in charge of the state until 2029.
A radical change just barely achieved
Although the margin fell short of the sweeping victory Erdoğan 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.
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.
Erdoğan, who first came to power in 2003 as prime minister, had argued a "Turkish-style" presidential system would bring stability and prosperity to a country rattled by a failed coup last year that left more than 200 people dead, and a series of devastating attacks by ISIS and Kurdish militants.
Erdoğan tells his critics their objections are 'in vain'
In his first remarks from Istanbul after the vote count showed the amendments winning approval, Erdoğan 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," Erdoğan told reporters in a live televised address.
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, Erdoğan 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.
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. Erdoğan 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 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 Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the main opposition People's Republican Party. Earlier, the party's vice chairman, Erdal Aksünger, 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 Güven 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 Erdoğan's win as a "pyrrhic victory that comes at a huge political cost. 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."
"Erdoğan has claimed victory, but there are question marks that are being raised," Hakura said.
Initial reaction from abroad was cautious. Three top officials for the European Union—EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn—said in a joint statement they "take note of the reported results" and were awaiting a report from international election observers.
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said the referendum was bound to complicate further cooperation between Ankara and the EU. Kurz said on Twitter the result "shows how divided the country is. Cooperation with #EU will become even more complex."
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.
"Erdoğan dominated the national media. He imposed a very restrictive environment for the 'no' camp. He secured a thin majority of 1 percent," Hakura said. "This suggests that Erdoğan will become more robust and more challenging to deal with."
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 Erdoğan , 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 neighborhood late Sunday, clanging pots and pans and chanting, "This is just the beginning, the struggle will continue."
The vote came as Turkey has been buffeted by problems. Erdoğan survived a coup attempt last July, which he has blamed on Gülen, who in turn denied involvement.
A widespread government crackdown has targeted Gülen followers 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 ISIS, which is active across the border in Syria.