Turkey's Erdogan Declares Victory in Referendum to Expand Presidential Powers

Politics Reuters

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared victory in a close vote on constitutional changes that would concentrate more power in his office and usher in some of the most radical changes since the 1923 founding of the republic. 

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The referendum was marred by allegations of fraud, with opposition leaders vowing to demand a recount. Opponents of Mr. Erdogan on Sunday night were massed in protest in Ankara, the capital, even as supporters of the president were holding congratulatory demonstrations elsewhere in the city. 

The president said the proposed constitutional amendments would give him the tools to grapple with terrorism, economic woes and the conflict in neighboring Syria. But in the short term, they are likely to create greater domestic instability. 

The contested results could lead to heightened tension with Europe, where officials have expressed wariness about a further concentration of power for Mr. Erdogan, who has led Turkey for 14 years and could now stay on as head of state for another decade. 

The outcome is unlikely to immediately affect Ankara's relations with Washington and the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization, analysts said. Turkey is a member of NATO and plays an important role in the alliance's fight against Islamic State. 

Unofficial results showed Mr. Erdogan's "yes" side garnering 51.2% of the vote, and 48.8% opposed, with 100% of the ballots counted, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency. Official tallies aren't expected for at least 10 days, according to the head of Turkey's election board, as they investigate widespread allegations of ballot tampering and other irregularities leveled by the major opposition parties. 

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Speaking to the nation late Sunday, Mr. Erdogan called his win an expression of the national will after a bitterly fought race that essentially became a referendum on his political legacy. His supporters turned out in droves, spurred by the allure of his policies that blend social conservatism and Islam with electoral democracy, as well as a populist dedication to modernizing health care and social services. 

Opponents of the changes had argued otherwise. They believe the constitutional changes would deliver a serious blow to a democratic system already under intense strain and set Turkey on a path to authoritarianism. They complained that the campaign has been unfair in part due to the restrictions caused by the continuing state of emergency called after last summer's failed coup. Since then, authorities have arrested more than 40,000 people, including dozens of opposition lawmakers and local elected officials, dismissed more than 120,000 civil servants and other government employees and closed roughly 140 media outlets. 

Mr. Erdogan's rivals vowed to challenge the results. The head of the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, said he would demand a recount. Kemal Kilicdaroglu alleged that upward of 2.5 million of the approximately 48 million votes cast could have been tampered with. Other opposition parties reported ballot stuffing by the "yes" side. The unofficial vote tallies show the two sides separated by approximately 1.1 million votes. 

The sizable number of dissenters in Sunday's contest signaled the depth of unease with the government's post-coup crackdown and revealed the deep polarization in this nation of 80 million. Many secularists, liberals and ethnic minority Kurds opposed constitutional changes that they fear will enshrine a majoritarian practice of democracy that marginalizes millions of Turks from political life. 

The reforms will radically alter Turkey's governing structures -- but not overnight. The current system of a parliamentary government headed by a prime minister will be abolished as soon as the country holds its next national election, now set for 2019. 

After that, expanded executive powers would rest with the president, who would be able to impose decrees, appoint vice presidents and cabinet members without legislative oversight and wield significant influence over judicial appointments. 

Meanwhile, the state of emergency remains in effect and parliament has no power to challenge any of the decrees passed by Mr. Erdogan and his National Security Council. The most recent extension of emergency powers expires this month, and Mr. Erdogan has indicated he would extend them again. 

The constitutional advisory body of the Council of Europe -- a multilateral human-rights and democracy organization of which Turkey is a member -- has said that the amendments could lead to a "one-person regime." Mr. Erdogan's supporters dismiss those concerns. 

"Criticism of the changes to the system have targeted Erdogan, because he is so strong," said Reha Denemec, an adviser to the Turkish president. "It's impossible to have a dictatorship where there are polls." 

Mr. Erdogan argued that the more concentrated decision-making would help boost Turkey's economy, which has been in a slump, and improve the government's ability to protect citizens against terror threats from Islamic State and the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party. 

His message of strength resonated with many voters. 

Fatima Demirci, a 59-year-old homemaker in Istanbul, said she voted "yes" because she thought it would bring more stability and prosperity. "Don't the youth today know what Turkey once was? We waited in lines to buy cooking oil," she said. 

During the campaign, Mr. Erdogan courted the support of nationalists by criticizing U.S. policies in Syria and taking swipes at Europe, among other things, threatening to bus Syrian refugees to the EU. 

In the final days of the race, Mr. Erdogan repeatedly derided the "no" campaign as the preference of those aligned with terrorist groups and outlawed Kurdish militants, whose insurgency against the state since the 1980s has led to tens of thousands of deaths. 

Mr. Erdogan's main base of support is pious Muslims who believe their religion should harmoniously infuse governance and life. They point to their leader's unbroken streak of winning seven straight elections as proof that democracy is successful in Turkey. 

The opposition, however, said the referendum showed the opposite -- that democracy has become critically endangered. 

During the referendum campaign, election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the continuing state of emergency raised concerns "about whether appropriate conditions are in place to hold a referendum." 

Write to Margaret Coker at margaret.coker@wsj.com, Ned Levin at ned.levin@wsj.com and Yeliz Candemir at yeliz.candemir@wsj.com