Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is claiming victory in a referendum that will greatly expand his powers, changing the country from a nominal parliamentary democracy into a presidential dictatorship.
But opposition groups are protesting the vote, which resulted in a closer outcome than expected.
Erdogan will apparently be denied the decisive victory he sought, despite his crackdown on the opposition since the failed military coup last year.
Nearly all ballots had been opened for counting, state-run Anadolu news agency said, although a lag between opening and counting them could see the lead tighten even further.
Erdogan called Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and the leader of the nationalist MHP party, which supported the “Yes” vote, to congratulate them, presidential sources said. They quoted Erdogan as saying the referendum result was clear.
The result appeared short of the decisive victory that Erdogan and the ruling AK Party had campaigned aggressively for. In Turkey’s three biggest cities – Istanbul, Izmir and the capital Ankara – the “No” camp appeared set to prevail narrowly, according to Turkish television stations.
Addressing a crowd outside the AKP’s headquarters in Ankara, Yildirim said unofficial tallies showed the “Yes” camp ahead.
“A new page has been opened in our democratic history,” Yildirim said. “We are brothers, one body, one nation.”
Convoys of cars honking horns in celebration, their passengers waving flags from the windows, clogged a main avenue in Ankara as they headed towards the AKP’s headquarters to celebrate. A chant of Erdogan’s name rang out from loud speakers and campaign buses.
A “Yes” vote would replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with an all-powerful presidency and may see Erdogan in office until at least 2029, in the most radical change to the country’s political system in its modern history.
The outcome will also shape Turkey’s strained relations with the European Union. The NATO member state has curbed the flow of migrants – mainly refugees from wars in Syria and Iraq – into the bloc but Erdogan says he may review the deal after the vote.
The opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) said it would demand a recount of up to 60 percent of the votes, protesting against a last-minute decision by the electoral board to accept unstamped ballots as valid votes.
If you’re wondering how people could freely vote for dictatorship, this voter explains:
“I don’t think one-man rule is such a scary thing. Turkey has been ruled in the past by one man,” he said, referring to modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Opponents say it is a step towards greater authoritarianism in a country where some 47,000 people have been jailed pending trial and 120,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs in a crackdown following a failed coup last July, drawing criticism from Turkey’s Western allies and rights groups.
Erdogan will be no ordinary dictator. He is, first and foremost, an Islamist in the heart of democratic Europe. He will control a large, well-trained army equipped with the latest NATO weapons in one of the most strategically located countries in the world. It will be very difficult to fight ISIS and blunt Iran’s ambitions without Erdogan’s cooperation.
That’s why criticism from NATO and the U.S. for this power grab will be muted. As noted above, Turkey is also a key player in the refugee crisis. Erdogan could make the lives of EU leaders miserable if he opens the floodgates of migrants and allows passage through Turkey into the west.
In other words, Erdogan enjoys a considerable amount of leverage. How he uses it will impact the security of NATO and the U.S.