ISTANBUL (AFP, REUTERS) – Turkey’s opposition on Monday (April 17) called for the annulment of a referendum giving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers, as international monitors voiced concern over the campaign and vote count.
With political tensions once again escalating in Turkey after a result that opponents fear will hand Erdogan one-man rule, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for dialogue to seek calm.
The referendum was seen as crucial not just for shaping the political system of Turkey but also the future strategic direction of a nation that has been a Nato member since 1952 and an EU hopeful for half a century.
The ‘Yes’ camp won 51.41 per cent in Sunday’s referendum and ‘No’ 48.59, according to near-complete results released by the election authorities.
But the opposition immediately cried foul over alleged violations, claiming that a clean vote would have made a difference of several percentage points and handed them victory.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said they would challenge the results from most of the ballot boxes due to alleged violations.
The opposition was particularly incensed by a decision by the YSK to allow voting papers without official stamps to be counted, which they said opened the way for fraud.
The referendum has no “democratic legitimacy”, HDP spokesman and MP Osman Baydemir told reporters in Ankara.
“The Higher Election Board has thrown a shadow on the people’s decision. They have caused the referendum’s legitimacy to be questioned,” said CHP chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
‘UNLEVEL PLAYING FIELD’
The opposition had already complained of an unfair campaign that saw the ‘Yes’ backers swamp the airwaves and use up billboards across the country in a saturation advertising campaign.
The referendum campaign was conducted on an “unlevel playing field” and the vote count itself was marred by the late procedural changes that removed key safeguards, international observers said.
“The legal framework... remained inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic referendum,” the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) monitors said in a joint statement.
“Late changes in counting procedures removed an important safeguard,” said Cezar Florin Preda, the head of the PACE delegation, referring to a move by the election authorities to allow voting documents without an official stamp.
‘MESSAGE TO AUTHORITIES’
Erdogan’s victory was far tighter than expected, emerging only after several nail-biting hours late Sunday which saw the ‘No’ result dramatically catch up in the later count.
Turkey’s three largest cities – Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir – all voted ‘No’ although ‘Yes’ prevailed in Erdogan’s Anatolian heartland.
“On April 17, we have woken up to a new Turkey,” wrote pro-government Hurriyet columnist Abdulkadir Selvi.
“The ‘Yes’ was victorious but the people have sent messages to the government and opposition that need to be carefully considered.” The new system is due to come into effect after elections in November 2019.
However the parliament faction chief of the ruling Justice Development Party (AKP), Mustafa Elitas said Erdogan would this month get an offer to rejoin that party he founded but had to leave when he became president.
In a bid to get back to business, Erdogan was on Monday to chair a cabinet and security meeting at his presidential palace that could extend the nine-month state of emergency brought in after the July 15 failed coup, Turkish media said.
Sporadic protests by disgruntled ‘No’ voters erupted overnight in parts of Istanbul, with demonstrators banging pots and pans to voice their discontent.
The new system would dispense with the office of prime minister and centralise the entire executive bureaucracy under the president, giving Erdogan the direct power to appoint ministers.
It would also mean that Erdogan, who became president in 2014, could seek two more five-year terms, leaving him in power potentially until 2029.
While there was speculation that Erdogan could call new elections so that his new powers could take effect right away, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek told Reuters there was no such plan, and the elections would still be held in 2019.
“Yesterday the president made it very clear that elections will be held in November 2019,” he said. “It is very clear. We have work to do.”
REVIVING THE DEATH PENALTY?
Throughout the campaign, Erdogan launched bitter attacks on the European Union, accusing member states of behaving like the Third Reich in failing to allow his ministers to campaign among expats.
The initial reaction from Turkey’s Western allies was far from ebullient, with top EU officials saying Turkey had to find the “broadest possible” agreement on the changes in view of the closeness of the result.
Merkel said Berlin expects Ankara will now “seek respectful dialogue with all political and social forces in the country.”
In an indication more strife with Brussels could be in the offing, Erdogan said he would now hold talks on reinstating capital punishment, a move that would automatically end Turkey’s EU bid.
If the opposition failed to support such a bill, he said another referendum could be held on reinstating the death penalty.
If Turkey were to hold a referendum on bringing back capital punishment it would be a break with European values, the French president’s office warned.