Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared victory on Sunday night in a narrowly decided referendum granting the populist leader significant new powers over the country. The result of the nationwide vote, which opposition parties are already contesting, sets in motion the most significant constitutional changes in the history of the Turkish Republic, allowing the next elected president vast new control over the country. Supporters say the changes are necessary to modernize the country, but critics believe the reforms will only strengthen Erdoğan’s already tight grip on power and put the country on the path to one-man authoritarian rule.
The official vote count has not been confirmed, but with almost 99 percent of ballots counted, the “yes” side had more than 51 percent of the vote, but the final results won’t be announced for nearly two weeks. Turkey’s primary opposition parties have already demanded a recount of much of the vote. Opposition leaders have also complained of potential voter fraud and many opposition members were reportedly targeted by an intimidation campaign in the lead up to the vote. The “no” side also received significantly less press coverage from Turkey’s state-run and state-influenced media.
The voter-approved reforms will replace the country’s parliamentary system with an executive presidency following the presidential election in 2019. The post of prime minister will be abolished, with those powers transferring to the president. The president will also have greater control over the judiciary, including the ability to appoint judges and government officials who would theoretically provide a check on his power, and he would be able to effectively dominate the country’s parliament as well.
The nationalist and Islamist Erdoğan, should he win the next election as expected, may now be able to legally rule Turkey until 2029 or longer, based on the term-limit changes approved by the referendum. He has already been effectively running the country as prime minister or president since 2003.
Supporters of the changes argue that the expansion and centralization of the president’s power is needed to help modernize the country and combat threats like ISIS and Kurdish separatists, but outside analysts see the changes as a degradation of the country’s already-weak democracy. In fact, Erdoğan has already been controlling Turkey with almost no checks and balances since 2014, and he and his allies have already purged roughly 130,000 people from the government thanks to the state of emergency declared following last year’s failed coup attempt. In some ways, the referendum just validates and legalizes power that Erdoğan and his ruling A.K.P. party had already taken.