Special to WorldTribune.com
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began to set post-referendum strategy for the country after declaring a “clear victory” in the April 16 vote that gave him sweeping new powers but was also challenged as illegitimate by the opposition.
Turkey’s Central Election Committee (CEC) on late April 16 declared “yes” to be the winner with 51.3 percent of the vote in the controversial referendum that included 18 constitutional amendments and will allow Erdogan to remain in power until 2029.
The CEC said with 99 percent of the ballots counted, the referendum was supported by 24.9 million voters against 23.6 million who voted against. Final results will be announced in 11-12 days, it said.
“I would like to thank all our citizens, regardless of how they voted, who went to the polling stations to protect their national will,” Erdogan said late on April 16. “The entire country has triumphed.”
He said his “first task” after the vote would be to take up the issue of bringing back the death penalty, something that would automatically block the heavily divided country’s bid to join the European Union. Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 as part of its EU bid.
Western nations have expressed concerns about the referendum, saying it would put too much power into the hands of the president.
Erdogan supporters say the changes are needed to establish stability in the country, which is facing unrest by Kurdish groups in eastern Turkey and a flood of refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), is demanding a recount of up to 60 percent of the ballots and says it will challenge 37 percent of the ballots that were counted.
The CHP criticized election officials for a last-minute change to the rules about which ballots would be counted in the tightly contested referendum, saying the ruling opened the way for fraud.
Under the ruling, ballot papers that were not officially stamped were still counted as valid unless they were proven to have been brought into the counting process from outside.
CHP head Kemal Kilicdaroglu said his party would not accept the “yes” vote and that “this referendum brought a truth to light – at least 50 percent of the people said ‘no.'”
Meanwhile, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said it would challenge two-thirds of the ballots. It claimed there was a vote “manipulation of three to four percentage points” in favor of expanding presidential powers.
The European Commission said it took note of the results and is awaiting an assessment from the OSCE/ODIHR International Observation Mission in regard to “alleged irregularities.”
It said it will assess the implementation of the constitutional amendments in “in light of Turkey’s obligations as a European Union candidate country and as a member of the Council of Europe.”
“We also call on the Turkish authorities to seek the broadest possible national consensus in their implementation,” the EU Commission said.
The amendments would abolish the office of prime minister and give the president the authority on many other matters, inclding the budget and the declaring of a state of emergency, without parliamentary approval.
Nils Muiznieks, the European Commissioner for Human Rights, on April 12 issued a report expressing “grave concern” that the constitutional revisions would reduce the autonomy of Turkey’s already weak judiciary.
Erdogan has been involved in a brutal war of words with European leaders in the run-up to the referendum and has said Turkey would reassess its desire to join the EU.
Attempts by Erdogan and his allies to stage campaign rallies targeting Turkish voters who live in the EU faced restrictions or cancellations in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland – leading to diplomatic disputes with Ankara.
Earlier in April, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a visit to Ankara that the proposed amendments would amount to a “profound political transformation.”
Merkel also urged that “everything should be done to ensure that separation of powers and plurality of opinion are guaranteed in Turkey.”
‘Burning Bridges’ With EU
The campaign ahead of the April 16 vote has also been marred by controversy.
The OSCE’s election monitoring group, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, noted on April 7 that the campaign and vote itself were taking place under a declared state of emergency following the failed coup attempt of July 2016.
The OSCE monitors also noted that fundamental freedoms have been curtailed under that state of emergency, with thousands of citizens detained or dismissed from their jobs — including civil servants, judges, journalists, and opposition party members.
Opponents of the amendments allege they have faced state suppression while supporters of the “yes” campaign have been able to use state media, facilities, and funds to organize campaign events.
Attempts by Erdogan and his allies to stage campaign rallies targeting Turkish voters who live in the EU faced restrictions or cancellations in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland — leading to diplomatic disputes with Ankara.
On April 13, Erdogan described Europe as a “rotting continent” that was “no longer a center of democracy, human rights, and liberty but of repression, violence, and Nazism.”
Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Ankara who is now an analyst with Carnegie Europe, says Erdogan’s Nazi jibes have outraged EU leaders to the point that he may have “burned his bridges” with Brussels “when it comes to personal relations.”
Pierini tells RFE/RL that if the constitutional amendments are approved by Turkish voters, a complete break in relations between Ankara and Brussels will seem inevitable.
“We will have a system that has no equivalent in the Western world,” he says. “It is more power concentrated in one man than anywhere” in the West, “a hyper-presidential system without much checks and balances. This will be really the one-man rule system and clearly in contradiction with EU norms.”
Other European experts say the optimistic scenario in terms of relations between Turkey and Brussels is that the rejection of the amendments by voters, or a narrow victory for the “yes” vote, might lead Erdogan to temper his combative attitude toward the EU and try to improve relations.