President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed victory on Sunday night in Turkey’s historic referendum on a new constitution that will hand him sweeping powers.
But the narrow winning margin fell well short of the 55 per cent mandate he had predicted. Opposition parties demanded recounts after the Supreme Election Council ruled while the vote was still going on that ballots without official verification stamps would be accepted.The preliminary results according to the council showed 51.4 per cent voting in favour with a national margin of 1.3m votes for Mr Erdogan’s campaign. The European Commission said it was awaiting the assessment of international observers on the fairness of the vote.
Observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have already pointed out that three members of the Supreme Election Council were dismissed in a purge following a failed coup in July last year, while others were appointed by the government. They will release a full report on Monday. The lira — the country’s currency that has lost more than 20 per cent of its value since a failed coup last year — was buoyed by the result, trading as much as 2 per cent higher than Friday’s close at 3.62 per dollar, although some of those gains were pared later in the day. The results included a No majority in Istanbul, the nation’s economic and social powerhouse where Mr Erdogan first built his political base as mayor. It was the first time he had lost an election in the city since 2002.
The vote cemented his role as the most powerful leader in the Turkish republic’s history and sets the stage for him to rule the country until 2029 — longer than Kemal Ataturk, the nation’s founder. “April 16 is the victory of all who said Yes or No, of the whole 80m, of the whole of Turkey of 780,000-square kilometres,” Mr Erdogan said in a late-night television address. However, the vote also revealed a rift Mr Erdogan must heal before 2019, when national elections will fully activate his newly gained constitutional heft. The three biggest cities — Istanbul, the capital Ankara and Izmir — voted against him.
The narrow result came after an uncompromising campaign in which Mr Erdogan likened his opponents to terrorists, jailed opposition leaders and dominated the airwaves. “More so than ever, Turkey’s domestic and wider regional stability depend on the whims of a volatile and incredibly unpredictable Erdogan,” said Mujtaba Rahman, head of European research at the Eurasia Group. “Erdogan will now need to win an election to acquire these new executive powers, so this win will not make Erdogan let up; and the situation in Turkey is not about to get any better.”
Mr Erdogan insisted that only by abolishing the post of prime minister and granting his own office largely unchecked executive powers could he guide the NATO ally through war in Syria, a battle with Islamists and conflict with Kurdish separatists. The new constitution means Mr Erdogan will have significant political immunity from prosecution and extensive sway over the judiciary and state budgets.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the country’s largest opposition party, the Republican People’s party, said the vote did not fully reflect the will of the people. “You can’t change the rules of the match in the middle of the game,” he said, referring to the decision to allow unstamped ballots to be counted.
The party has said it will challenge the results. Mr Erdogan’s response was, “Don’t try, it won’t succeed.” A victory for Mr Erdogan offered some relief to the country’s currency, as investors hope for a period of stability following the political chaos that emerged after an abortive coup against Mr Erdogan in July last year.
A NATO member and key ally of the west in the fight against Isis, Turkey has been governed under a state of emergency since the coup attempt, and Mr Erdogan has launched a crackdown under which more than 100,000 people have been detained, dismissed from their jobs or suspended. Prior to the 2016 failed coup, Turkey had boasted one of the world’s best performing emerging markets before it was dragged down by instability and a subsequent collapse in tourism.
As the results came in, Mr Erdogan’s supporters celebrated on the streets, buoyed by the hope that he will steer Turkey through the challenges ahead and revive the struggling economy. They cite his success in the early 2000s, when his government defeated hyperinflation and tackled crippling foreign debt. But his critics say a Yes vote will bring Turkey closer to a fully fledged authoritarian state with few, if any, institutions able to challenge the presidency.
The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission has already warned that Turkey’s new order is incompatible with democratic norms and the rule of law. In a report released in the lead-up to the referendum, the commission said it was “a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey”.
Kati Piri, the EU’s rapporteur for Turkey, said on her website: “It is clear that the country cannot join the EU with a constitution that doesn’t respect the separation of powers and has no checks and balances.” Most alarming to EU members is the fact that the referendum was held under the state of emergency, with a dozen opposition MPs jailed on unrelated terrorism charges.
The No campaign was denied airtime on television, as well as permission from municipal authorities to hold rallies.“ Turkey’s western orientation is finished,” said David L Phillips, at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, noting Mr Erdogan continues to detain MPs from HDP, a pro-Kurdish political party that opposed the referendum.
“There’s nothing to suggest that Erdogan will suddenly be more conciliatory,” Mr Philips added. “There’s little hope that the HDP members of parliament will be released, the security operations in the south-east will continue and the round-up of Gulenists [blamed for the failed coup] will continue.” About 150 journalists have also been detained, with Mr Erdogan deriding them as rapists and child molesters. The president’s next steps will be closely watched. The state of emergency is set to expire on April 20 but, if he extends it, questions will be raised over whether the suspension of civil liberties will continue indefinitely.