Turkey referendum: Erdogan appears poised to win

Photos of Turkish referendum No supporters walking along Bosphorus today in Istanbul.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared on course Sunday to score a narrow victory in a referendum designed to assign him sweeping new powers.

With 95.73% of the ballots counted, the “yes” vote was narrowly ahead, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported. Results show 51.94% of Turks are in favor of giving Erdogan more power and 48.06% are against.

Though the official tally was not yet final, Anadolu was reporting that Erdogan had called Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and the leaders of the right-wing National Movement Party and Great Unity Party to offer “congratulations for the referendum victory.”

Voters were asked to endorse an 18-article reform package put forward by the ruling Justice and Development Party that would replace the current system of parliamentary democracy with a powerful executive presidency.

Controversy flared Sunday after the High Electoral Board announced it would not accept ballots that were missing ballot commission stamps. But the board changed course after voting was under way, saying it would accept unstamped ballots “unless they are proven to have been brought from outside.”

The opposition said this would affect the legitimacy of the vote.

“The High Electoral Board has changed the rules after the voting started. There is a clear clause in electoral law saying unstamped ballots will be invalid and the High Electoral Board issued its notice in compliance with this law,” said Bulent Tezcan, deputy chairman of the oppostion Republican People’s Party.

Erdogan, who cast his vote in Istanbul earlier in the day amid tight security, said he hoped Turks would make the “expected” choice.

Earlier in the day, three people were reported to have died after an exchange of gunfire near a polling station in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır.

A violent argument erupted at a polling place in the village of Yabanard. Two men, aged 68 and 32, were shot after two families got into an argument, Anadolu reported.

As a minibus transported the wounded men to Siverek Public Hospital, it was attacked by people with guns and stones and another villager was injured. All three victims, who shared the same last name, later died, the news agency reported.

If passed, the measures will represent the biggest constitutional upheaval in the country since its foundation in 1923 after the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

They would cement Erdogan’s grip on a country whose divisions have deepened since a failed coup attempt last July that ended with the deaths of more than 250 people and led to the imposition of a fierce crackdown on dissent.

Those who support the reforms believe they will kick-start a lethargic economy and stabilize a nation dealing with the resurgence of a 30-year conflict with militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But opponents argue the proposals will lead to the formation of a constitutional dictatorship.

If Erdogan prevails in the vote, his grip on power would be considerably tightened. Term limits for the presidency would be reset and, if he wins elections in 2019 and 2024, he could be in power until 2029.

After serving as Prime Minster for more a decade, Erdogan became President in 2014. By little more than force of personality, he turned a largely ceremonial post into a vehicle of significant power.

He has initiated a widespread crackdown on opposition, which intensified after last year’s botched coup, for which he blamed US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Critics say the clampdown has gone beyond the supporters of the coup and is designed to silence dissent in the run-up to the referendum.

The arrests of 47,155 government critics, academics, journalists, military officials and civil servants have draw widespread international condemnation and strained Turkey’s relations with the European Union.