Turkish voters chose Sunday to fundamentally restructure their government from parliamentary rule to a presidential system that grants sweeping powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the nation’s current ruler and driving force behind the change.
While Turkey’s main opposition party claimed fraud in a close nationwide referendum on the change — and the government’s Supreme Election Commission had yet to announce official results as of Sunday night — the president declared victory on state television.
For Mr. Erdogan, first elected mayor of Istanbul at age 40 and the architect of general election wins in 2002, 2007 and 2011 before becoming president in 2014, a majority “Yes” vote on the referendum represents the ultimate consolidation of power and, his supporters claim, a major step needed to move the nation forward.
If it stands, the vote will mark a rare moment in post-World War II history in which a nation once moving toward democracy seems to have taken a dramatic step backward.
The referendum would expand the Turkish president’s power by effectively dissolving the office of prime minister and allowing the executive branch that Mr. Erdogan already oversees to absorb many of the authorities of the nation’s legislature.
The Turkish president will be allowed to appoint government ministers and one-third of the nation’s judges and have the power to declare national emergencies and dissolve parliament. Perhaps most notably, he will be legally authorized to stand anew for elections himself for two five-year terms — potentially extending his grip on the presidency until 2029.
While state-run media reported Sunday night that roughly 51.3 percent of votes cast favored the constitutional changes, with 48.7 percent voting against, there was some uncertainty surrounding the tally.
In an unprecedented and last-minute decision heading into the vote, the Supreme Election Commission had said it would accept as valid ballots that didn’t have official government stamps on them.
Opposition leaders, who’d stood against expanding Mr. Erdogan’s powers, pounced on the development, saying it left the referendum with serious legitimacy problems.
As votes were counted, the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, said it would challenge 37 percent of ballot boxes. Other opposition players echoed the assertion, with the Peoples’ Democratic Party claiming on Twitter that its “data indicates a manipulation in the range of 3 to 4 percent.”
According to Turkish media, more than 55 million people in the country of about 80 million were registered to vote.
Bordering Syria, Iran and Iraq, Turkey occupies some of the most strategic political and geographic real estate in the world. It is one of just two Muslim-majority NATO members and is the home of Incirlik, one of the most valuable U.S. air bases in the world.
But the nation’s opposition has argued for years that Mr. Erdogan’s rule has become riddled with corruption, promoted divisive nationalism and driven a religious wedge between the country’s secular and religious voters.
After turning back a brief attempted coup last summer, the Turkish president cracked down on suspected plotters by purging civil society, the courts and the military.
Some 100,000 journalists, academics, opposition politicians and others were stripped from positions of influence. The government accused many of having connections to Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric in exile in Pennsylvania who Mr. Erdogan claims orchestrated the coup.
Division was rife across social media Sunday night, with Erdogan supporters claiming the referendum marked the dawn of new era, while the opposition cried foul and fraud.
Some said the outcome was the result of a careful, decade-long push by Mr. Erdogan to amass power, and suggested more should have been done over the years to confront him.
“This is about one man and power,” said Dani Rodrik, a Turkish economist and professor at Harvard University. “If you declare Turkish democracy dead,” Mr. Rodrik tweeted Sunday, “tell your readers why you were cheering it on while it was dying.”
At victory rallies In both Ankara and Istanbul, the tone was very different.
Erdogan supporters rallied outside the offices of the president’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Horns blared as makeshift motorcades snaked through the streets, where pro-Erdogan campaign songs filled the air and Turkish flags waved around bonfires late into the night.
But even as the celebrations roared, election data in pro-government media showed Turkey’s three biggest cities — Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir — as well as the predominantly Kurdish southeast had voted “No” to the constitutional changes.
It was not immediately clear how the referendum would effect the nation’s so-called “Kurdish question,” which has long seen Ankara struggle with Kurds, who’ve for decades waged an on -again, off-again insurgency against the Turkish state.
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