Erdogan's narrow poll victory exposes divisions in Turkey

Supporters of the "No" gesture and chant slogans as they hold placards during a march at the Kadikoy district in Istanbul, on April 17, 2017.
Supporters of the "No" gesture and chant slogans as they hold placards during a march at the Kadikoy district in Istanbul, on April 17, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

Opposition alleges fraud, international observers say vote count was marred

ANKARA • Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waved flags in the streets while opponents alleged poll fraud after a narrow referendum victory gave him sweeping powers and laid the nation's divisions bare.

The referendum will bring the biggest overhaul in Turkish politics since the founding of the modern republic, abolishing the post of prime minister and concentrating power in the hands of the president. Unofficial results showed a victory with 51.4 per cent of votes cast in favour.

The main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, called for the result to be annulled, alleging widespread violations.

"There is only one decision to ease the situation in the context of the law - the Supreme Election Board (YSK) should annul the election," the Dogan news agency quoted CHP deputy leader Bulent Tezcan as saying.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) said yesterday that the number of unstamped ballots counted as valid had been enough to swing the outcome and decried what it described as a "coup" by the electoral authorities.

HDP spokesman Osman Baydemir said around three million voters had been affected by the YSK's last-minute decision to accept as valid ballot papers that were not stamped by its officials, unless they were proven to be fraudulent.

International observers also questioned the poll, saying the vote count itself was marred by late procedural changes.

"The referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities," said Mr Cezar Florin Preda of the joint mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

"Late changes in counting procedures removed an important safeguard," Mr Preda added, referring to the move by the election authorities to allow voting documents without an official stamp.

Mr Erdogan has long said that the changes to the Constitution were needed to end the chronic instability that plagued the country over decades when the military repeatedly tried to seize power from weak civilian governments.

"For the first time in the history of the Republic, we are changing our ruling system through civil politics," he said in a victory speech.

But the narrow referendum result could be a sign of more instability to come. The changes won strong backing in conservative rural areas, but were strongly opposed in Istanbul and other cities, as well as in the restive Kurdish south-east.

Germany said yesterday the close result showed how divided Turkish society was and that Turkish leaders should open talks with opponents. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel also said the Turkish authorities needed to address concerns about the content and procedure of the referendum raised by European legal experts.

France urged Mr Erdogan not to use the result to bring back capital punishment. Mr Erdogan told supporters on Sunday that Turkey could hold another referendum on reinstating the death penalty. Such a move would spell the end of Turkey's accession talks with the European Union.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'Erdogan's narrow poll victory exposes divisions in Turkey'. Print Edition | Subscribe