Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed victory Sunday in a referendum that would grant him vast new powers as the country’s unrivaled head of state, strengthening his influence over the judiciary and his authority over the parliament and extending his divisive tenure in office.
Unofficial vote tallies published by the state news agency showed that 51 percent of voters approved a set of constitutional changes that would transform Turkey’s system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The preliminary result, if confirmed, would cap a dramatic ascent for the populist Erdogan, a onetime mayor of Istanbul whose governance, mastery of politics and bare-knuckles approach to adversaries have handed him and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP, a string of election wins since 2002.
But the narrow margin of victory reflected Turkey’s deepening polarization after a failed coup last summer and the anguished arguments over measures that Erdogan’s critics said firmly entrenched one-man rule. Turkey’s main opposition party quickly contested the result of the vote, claiming that up 2.5 million ballots were invalid and that some election monitors had been removed from polling stations.
Protests were reported in districts of Istanbul and elsewhere Sunday night against a decision by the election board to accept ballots in unsealed envelopes. Vote tallies indicated the referendum had been defeated in Turkey’s three largest cities.
Speaking to supporters in Istanbul late Sunday night, Erdogan suggested that criticism of the balloting was “unnecessary,” adding that unofficial tallies showed that 25 million citizens had voted for the measures. “Turkey has spoken its mind,” he said.
The changes, he added, would substantially transform Turkey’s government, something Erdogan’s supporters say is long overdue and necessary for the country’s stability.
“Regardless of whether they cast a yes vote or a no vote,” the president said, “I would like to thank all our citizens.”
The changes put the people Sunday would allow Erdogan, who came to power as prime minister in 2003, to run for reelection in 2019 and serve two five-year terms — cementing, in the minds of many here, his status as the most consequential leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic.
Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East have made Erdogan a pivotal partner to Western nations in recent years. That is especially true of the United States, which is leading a military coalition to defeat the Islamic State militant group across Turkey’s borders in Iraq and Syria. Turkey also hosts more than 3 million refugees from Syria and has struck a deal with European nations to prevent the refugees from traveling to Europe.
Domestic turmoil, though, has made Turkey an unpredictable ally. A failed coup last summer killed more than 250 people and set off a feverish government purge of its enemies in state institutions — as well as a hunt by Turkey’s government for alleged coup participants who had fled abroad, including to Europe.