President Recip Tayyip Erdo?an, as expected, won his battle to be granted sweeping new dictatorial powers, though only by a narrow margin. Afterwards, international monitors reported that Turkey’s referendum campaign was “unequal”, with critics suffering restrictions, late procedural changes and state resources being misused.
The verdict by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) undermined the poll, but Erdo?an dismissed the criticisms. In a rally in Ankara, he said that Turkey did not “see, hear or acknowledge the politically motivated reports” of the monitors. “The crusader mentality in the west and its servants at home have attacked us,” he added. “We did not give in. We did not give up. As a nation we stood strong.”
Erdo?an’s push for an executive presidency succeeded with 51.4% voting for it and 48.6 against on a turnout of 80%. The vote was ruled valid by Turkey’s electoral body, despite claims of irregularities.
The president’s opponents, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest bloc in the opposition, said they wanted the result annulled. One particular complaint concerned the election board’s decision, at a late stage in the count, to include unstamped ballots which were considered invalid in previous votes. These accounted for 1.5 million votes; the winning margin was 1.1 million.
CHP has demanded a recount of 60% of the votes. Its deputy head said the result should be annulled altogether. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) also challenged the vote.
Even it the outcome stands, it leaves the country deeply divided at a time of heightening tensions, not least in neighbouring Syria. Critics said that Erdogan will now move to crush Kurdish insurgents within his borders, perhaps fatally undermining the Kurdish semi-independent states established in Syria and Iraq following military successes against IS.
“The referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities,” the OSCE said. “The campaign rhetoric was tarnished by some senior officials equating No supporters with terrorist sympathisers, and in numerous cases No supporters faced police interventions and violent scuffles at their events.”
As a result of the referendum, President Erdo?an will be given vastly enhanced powers to appoint cabinet ministers, issue decrees, choose senior judges and dissolve parliament. The new system would scrap the role of prime minister and concentrate power in the hands of the president, placing all state bureaucracy under his control.
Erdo?an’s supporters insisted that replacing the parliamentary system with an executive presidency would modernise the country. They would represent the most sweeping programme of constitutional changes since Turkey became a republic almost a century ago. Critics however have likened the referendum to the one held in Germany in 1934 which approved the merger of the powers of Chancellor and President and allowed Adolf Hitler to officially assume supreme power.
The Turkish government has already imprisoned or dismissed thousands of journalists, teachers, civil servants, judges, prosecutors, academics and members of the security forces, and closed many media outlets, following last year’s failed coup.