ANKARA/ISTANBUL • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was set to gain sweeping new powers and herald the most radical change to Turkey's political system in its modern history yesterday, according to initial results from a bitterly contested referendum.
According to the state-run Anadolu news agency, the "Yes" campaign had secured 52.8 per cent of the vote with around 90 per cent of ballots counted. The result could still change as more ballot boxes were counted across the hugely diverse country following the close of polls at 5pm local time.
Some 55 million people were eligible to vote at 167,140 polling stations, which opened at 7am (12pm Singapore time) in the east and 8am in the rest of Turkey.
A crowd chanted "Recep Tayyip Erdogan" and applauded as the President shook hands and greeted people after voting in a school near his home in Istanbul. His staff handed out toys for children in the crowd.
What 'yes' vote would mean
MORE POWERS FOR PRESIDENT ERDOGAN
Under the new Constitution, the Turkish President would have strengthened executive powers to directly appoint top public officials, including ministers.
The President would also be able to assign one or several vice-presidents. The office and position of prime minister would be scrapped.
The changes would implement a shake-up in the judiciary. The President and Parliament would together be able to choose four members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, a key judicial council that appoints and removes personnel in the judiciary. Parliament would choose seven members on its own in what would be renamed the Board of Judges and Prosecutors.
PEACE PROCESS OR MILITARY ACTION?
Mr Erdogan could adopt a more reconciliatory attitude on the country's problem with Kurdish militants, even to the point of reopening dialogue. But the Yeni Safak daily has claimed that the government will open a new front with cross-border operations against PKK camps in Sinjar, northern Iraq, in a new effort to destroy the group.
Under the proposed Constitution, a state of emergency imposed by the President would also last six months - as opposed to three now - and could then be extended for four months at a time.
ERDOGAN IN POWER TILL 2029?
The proposed Constitution states that the next presidential and parliamentary elections are to be held simultaneously on Nov 3, 2019. If he wins, the President would have a five-year term with a maximum of two mandates. So the changes would mean that Mr Erdogan could stay in power for another two terms until 2029.
The outcome will shape Turkey's strained relations with the European Union. The Nato member state has curbed the flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq into the bloc, but Mr Erdogan has said he may review the deal after the vote.
Mr Erdogan has also said Turkey's bid for EU membership would be "on the table" after the referendum, and in every single campaign speech said he would sign any Bill restoring capital punishment, a move that would automatically end its bid to join the bloc.
In the event of an easy victory, Mr Erdogan could have the confidence to take a decisive move away from EU integration and show Turkey can forge alternative strategic alliances. One alternative to full membership could be a strengthened Customs union, but it is unclear if that would be palatable for Mr Erdogan.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
"God willing, I believe our people will decide to open the path to much more rapid development. I believe in my people's democratic common sense," Mr Erdogan said in the polling station after casting his vote.
Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the standard-bearer of the "No" camp, said: "We are voting for Turkey's destiny. God willing, the result will be auspicious and we will all have the chance to determine Turkey's fundamental problems."
The referendum has bitterly divided the nation.
Mr Erdogan and his supporters say that the changes are needed to amend the current Constitution written by generals following a 1980 military coup, confront the security and political challenges Turkey faces, and avoid the fragile coalition governments of the past.
"This is our opportunity to take back control of our country," said self-employed Mr Bayram Seker, 42, after voting "Yes" in Istanbul.
"I don't think one-man rule is such a scary thing. Turkey has been ruled in the past by one man," he said, referring to modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Opponents say it is a step towards greater authoritarianism in a country where some 47,000 people have been jailed pending trial and 120,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs in a crackdown following a failed coup last July, drawing criticism from Turkey's Western allies and rights groups.
"I voted 'No' because I don't want this whole country and its legislative, executive and judiciary ruled by one man. This would not make Turkey stronger or better as they claim. This would weaken our democracy," said Mr Hamit Yaz, 34, a ship's captain, after voting in Istanbul.
As in previous elections in recent years, campaigning has been heavily lopsided in favour of the government. Mr Erdogan and the governing Justice and Development Party got more than 68 hours of airtime to make their case on state-run television during the first three weeks of last month, nearly 20 times that allotted to the main opposition party CHP, according to a study by the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), whose leadership has been jailed.
The HDP got only one minute, its deputy head Saruhan Oluc said.
There have also been reports of intimidation. During the week before the vote, some employers asked workers to bring photographic evidence of a "Yes" vote or face repercussions, according to Mr Kani Beko, head of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, known as Disk.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG