Sunday’s landmark referendum vote in Turkey that will grant President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan enormous new powers remained clouded in controversy Monday, as the country’s main opposition party called for the extremely close vote to be nullified amid questions surrounding some 3 million unstamped ballots.
Speaking to a crowd of elated supporters Sunday night in Istanbul after the results were announced, Erdoğan appeared unfazed by the controversy and asserted that the victory represents “the most important governmental reform of our history.”
His critics agree that the vote is historic, but to them it represents yet another step toward authoritarianism.
The results were tight and turnout was high. According to Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu, over 80 percent of Turks voted, with unofficial results showing 51.3 percent voting in favor of the reforms and 48.7 percent voting against.
The three largest cities — Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul — voted against the reforms.
Turkey’s electoral board ruled the election valid, even as the main opposition party in Turkey, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), contests the results and is calling for a recount of 60 percent of the votes, the BBC reports. Casting further doubt on Sunday’s vote, a report issued by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental organization that oversees elections, said the election “took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities.”
Erdoğan has enjoyed largely uninterrupted power since 2003, when he first became prime minister. In 2011, he took over as the country’s president — a position that was supposed to be primarily ceremonial but that Erdoğan has exploited to extend his rule. Early on Erdoğan won popularity for his leadership in steering Turkey’s growth in the region both economically and politically. But in recent years, critics say, the Turkish president has pushed the country toward an illiberal democracy — a criticism that reached its peak in the wake of a failed coup last July.
Turkey has been in a state of emergency since the attempted coup by a faction of the Turkish military. About 300 people were killed, and over 1,000 were injured, according to Reuters. Erdoğan responded by waging an expansive crackdown, detaining 47,000 people and firing or suspending another 120,000 from their jobs. This, along with media coverage skewing to Erdoğan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), the OSCE says, contributed to “one side’s dominance in the coverage and restrictions on the media reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views.”
The vote has already raised concerns far beyond Turkey and into Europe, where leaders reacted to the news cautiously. German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that the reforms placed a heavy responsibility on Erdoğan, and the close results show Turkey remains divided. Record numbers of Turkish expats voted in the referendum, and Turkish groups in Germany have expressed concerns over Turkish Germans voting in large numbers to approve the reforms, saying that it represents anti-democratic sentiments among German Turks.
Meanwhile, the 47-member Council of Europe has criticized the election process in stark terms: “In general, the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards. The legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process,” said Cezar Florin Preda, head of the delegation, according to the Associated Press.
Observers also criticized the proposed reforms for being too complex for a referendum vote, flouting standards of good practice for referenda: Eighteen proposed amendments affected 72 articles of the constitution, and voters were asked for a simple yes or no vote. Here are the major features of the reform:
- The president will be able to decide whether to impose a state of emergency.
- The post of prime minister will be eliminated, and additional executive power will be transferred to the president.
- The president will be given additional powers to influence the judiciary by appointing judges and issuing decrees. Erdoğan accused the judiciary of being influenced by a Pennsylvania-based preacher, Fethullah Gulen, whom the president blames for last summer’s unsuccessful coup.
- The president will be allowed to conduct “disciplinary inquiries” into any of Turkey’s 3.5 million civil servants, the head of the Turkish Bar Association told the New York Times.
- The presidency will be limited to a five-year term, with a caveat: If parliament cuts the second term short by calling for an early election, Erdoğan can stay on for a third term.