By ELENA BECATOROS, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has finally fulfilled his long-held ambition to expand his powers after Sunday’s referendum handed him the reins of his country’s governance. But success did not come without a cost.
His victory leaves the nation deeply divided and facing increasing tension with former allies abroad, while international monitors and opposition parties have reported numerous voting irregularities.
An unofficial tally carried by the country’s state-run news agency gave Erdogan’s “yes” vote a narrow win, with 51.4 percent approving a series of constitutional changes converting Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. Critics argue the reforms will hand extensive power to a man with an increasingly autocratic bent, leaving few checks and balances in place.
Opposition parties called for the vote to be annulled because of a series of irregularities, particularly an electoral board decision to accept ballots that did not bear official stamps, as required by Turkish law. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who also listed numerous irregularities, said the move undermined safeguards against fraud.
The referendum campaign was heavily weighted in favor of the “yes” campaign, with Erdogan drawing on the full powers of the state and government to dominate the airwaves and billboards. The “no” campaign complained of intimidation, detentions and beatings.
In Istanbul, hundreds of “no” supporters demonstrated in the streets on Monday, chanting “thief, murderer, Erdogan” and banging pots and pans.
One man show. Reuters photo
“We are protesting today because the results announced by the government are not the real ones. Because actually the ‘no’ we voted won. But the government is announcing it as ‘yes’ has won,” Damla Atalay, a 35-year-old lawyer, said of the voting irregularities.
Erdogan was unfazed by the criticism as he spoke to flag-waving supporters in the Turkish capital, Ankara.
“We have put up a fight against the powerful nations of the world,” he said as he arrived at the airport from Istanbul. “The crusader mentality attacked us abroad. … We did not succumb. As a nation, we stood strong.”
In a speech before a massive crowd at his sprawling presidential palace complex, Erdogan insisted Turkey’s referendum was “the most democratic election … ever seen in any Western country” and admonished the OSCE monitors to “know your place.”
The increasing polarization of Turkish society has long worried observers, who note the dangers of deepening societal divisions in a country with a history of political instability.
The referendum was held with a state of emergency still in place, imposed after an attempted coup in July. About 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs in the crackdown that followed on supporters of a U.S.-based Islamic cleric and former Erdogan ally whom the president blamed for the attempted putsch. Tens of thousands have been arrested or imprisoned, including lawmakers, judges, journalists and businessmen.
The Council of Ministers decided Monday to extend the state of emergency, which grants greater powers of detention and arrest to security forces, for a further three months. It had been due to expire April 19. The decision was to be sent to parliament for approval.
“The way (Erdogan) has closed the door on the opposition, there is likely to be increased political unrest,” said Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. “Forty-eight percent of the population is being told that their voices don’t matter.”
There is also the risk of increased international isolation, with Erdogan appealing to patriotic sentiments by casting himself as a champion of a proud Turkish nation that will not be dictated to by foreign powers in general, and the European Union in particular.
Turkey has been an EU candidate for decades, but its accession efforts have been all but moribund for several years.
“They have made us wait at the gates of the European Union for 54 years,” Erdogan told his supporters at the presidential palace. “We can conduct a vote of confidence on this as well. Would we? What did England do — they did Brexit, right?”
“Either they will hold their promises to Turkey or they’ll have to bear the consequences,” he added.
Erdogan has also vowed to consider reinstating the death penalty — a move that would all but end prospects of EU membership. But, he insisted, other nations’ opinions on the issue are irrelevant to him.
“Our concern is not what George or Hans or Helga says. Our concern is what Hatice, Ayse, Fatma, Ahmet, Mehmet, Hasan, H?seyin says,” he thundered as the crowd of supporters chanted for the return of capital punishment. “What Allah says. That’s why our parliament will make this decision.”
Both Germany and France expressed concern about possible election irregularities and called on Erdogan to engage in dialogue with the opposition.
“The narrow result of the vote shows how deeply split the Turkish society is,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in a joint statement. “This implies a big responsibility for the Turkish government and President Erdogan personally.”
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, ignored the concerns about voting irregularities and congratulated Erdogan on his referendum victory. The two leaders also discussed Turkey’s support of the U.S. response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack and efforts to counter the Islamic State group, according to the White House statement on their phone call Monday.
The White House previously sidestepped questions about how the referendum was conducted, but the U.S. State Department had echoed the concerns raised by the OSCE, with spokesman Mark Toner pointing to “observed irregularities” on voting day and “an uneven playing field” during the campaign.
Such concerns are unlikely to move Erdogan.
The referendum approves 18 constitutional amendments to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one.
The president will be able to appoint ministers, senior government officials and to hold sway over who sits in Turkey’s highest judicial body, as well as to issue decrees and declare states of emergency. They set a limit of two five-year terms for presidents.
The new system takes effect at the next election, currently slated for 2019. Other changes are to be implemented sooner, including scrapping a requirement that the president not be a member of any political party. This would allow Erdogan to rejoin the governing AK Party he co-founded, or to lead it.
“Erdogan dominated the national media. He imposed a very restrictive environment for the ‘no’ camp,” said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “He secured a thin majority of 1 percent. This suggests that Erdogan will become more robust and more challenging to deal with.”
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Zeynep Bilginsoy and Bram Janssen in Istanbul contributed to this report.
Trump Congratulates Erdogan
Donald Trump has congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his victory in Sunday’s referendum that gave him sweeping new powers.
The US president’s phone call contrasts with concern by European leaders who have pointed out how the result – 51.4% in favour of the changes – has exposed deep splits in Turkish society.
Mr Erdogan has rejected criticism from international monitors who said he had been favoured by an “unequal campaign”.
“Know your place,” he told them.
The narrow victory was ruled valid by Turkey’s electoral body, despite claims of irregularities by the opposition.
More on the outcome:
On Monday, Turkey extended the state of emergency for three months. The measure, introduced after a failed coup last July, was set to expire in two days.
Is Trump support a boost for Erdogan? Mark Lowen, BBC News, Istanbul
The call from Donald Trump was pre-arranged and the focus was Syria – but the congratulations for President Erdogan’s victory means the US president joins leaders from Qatar, Guinea, Djibouti and the Palestinian militant movement Hamas to voice the opinion, while those in Europe have been far more cautious.
It will delight Erdogan supporters, who will see it as legitimising the president’s victory. But it will dismay opponents, after Mr Erdogan’s fiery tirades against the West and the damning verdict of international observers.
It also exposes a split between the EU and US on Turkey: Mr Trump opting for realpolitik while Europe urges the unpredictable Turkish leader to reconcile a divided country.
And it will reiterate similarities between Presidents Trump and Erdogan on issues like democratic norms and press freedom – though the Turkish president has of course dealt with them in a far more extreme way.
Ultimately, President Trump was perhaps aiming to win favour in Ankara, given that the two sides have fundamental disagreements over Syria.
What are the disagreements about?
Syria is one of the issues straining relations between Washington and Ankara.
Turkey is irked by the policy started by the Obama administration of supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria who are fighting IS forces.
Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a terror group linked to Kurdish separatists waging an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.
Turkey – a key Nato ally – has established closer co-operation with Russia recently.
The two sides are also at loggerheads over Fethullah Gulen. Turkey accuses the Pennsylvania-based cleric of orchestrating the failed coup and wants him extradited.
Officially Washington insists any decision on returning him to Turkey from the US remains a judicial rather than a political one.
What have European leaders said?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the “tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is and that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdogan personally”.
The European Commission issued a similar call.
Others expressed concern about the possibility of the return of capital punishment.
The French president’s office warned that any referendum on reviving the death penalty would “obviously be a break with values and engagements” that Turkey had accepted in joining the Council of Europe. The president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, tweeted his own concerns.
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz went further. He said the referendum result was a “clear signal against the European Union”. The “fiction” of Turkey’s bid to join the bloc must be ended, Mr Kurz said.
Why are international monitors concerned?
Despite saying that the voting day was “well administered”, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe criticised the referendum campaign, and the Council of Europe said the vote “did not live up” its standards.
The monitors also criticised a late change by electoral officials that allowed voting papers without official stamps to be counted. But the head of Turkey’s electoral body, Sadi Guven, said the unstamped ballot papers had been produced by the High Electoral Board and were valid. He said a similar procedure had been used in past elections.
What did the president say about the result?
Mr Erdogan told supporters that Turkey did not “see, hear or acknowledge the politically motivated reports” of the monitors. Getty Images
The result, he said, ended the debate on changing the constitution and creating an executive presidency, adding that the process of implementing the reforms would now begin.
He also said the country could hold a referendum on its long-stalled EU membership bid.
Additionally, Mr Erdogan said he would approve the death penalty if it was supported in a referendum or a bill was submitted to him through parliament. This would end Turkey’s EU negotiations.
What do the constitutional changes include?
- The president will have a five-year tenure, for a maximum of two terms
- The president will be able to directly appoint top public officials, including ministers and one or several vice-presidents
- The job of prime minister will be scrapped
- The president will have power to intervene in the judiciary, which Mr Erdogan has accused of being influenced by Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher he blames for the failed coup in July
- The president will decide whether or not to impose a state of emergency
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