BREAKING NEWS, 1:43 p.m.: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared victory Sunday in a close referendum to expand his powers, but opposition parties were contesting the results. Erdogan has made congratulatory calls to party leaders. If the vote stands, it would transform Turkey’s system of government, abolish the post of prime minister and entrench one-man rule, Erdogan’s critics say. He would be poised to be the country’s most dominant leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic.
ISTANBUL — Polling stations have closed in Turkey after a pivotal vote Sunday on constitutional changes that, if approved, would significantly expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and seal his political dominance over Turkey for a dozen more years.
Polls before the vote showed Turks evenly divided as they choose whether to approve constitutional amendments that would transform Turkey’s system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential system.
The reforms would abolish the post of prime minister and give the president broad new authority over the judiciary — changes that Erdogan’s supporters said would deliver stability and more sure-footed leadership — or condemn Turkey’s multiparty democracy to one-man rule, in the view of the president’s critics.
A “yes” vote would allow Erdogan, who came to power as prime minister in 2003, to stand for election in 2019 and serve two five-year terms, cementing, in the minds of many here, his status as the most consequential leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic.
The details of the amendments have confounded many voters, and the poll was instead widely seen as a verdict on the 15-year leadership of Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The referendum comes at a moment of deep polarization in Turkey, in the wake of a failed coup last summer, with views of the powerful president eliciting sharply divergent views.
The referendum also comes as Turkey’s Western allies, including the United States, are looking to Erdogan as an increasingly critical partner, which is leading a military coalition to defeat the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria. Turkey also hosts more than 3 million refugees and has struck a deal with European nations to prevent more refugees from traveling to their shores.
There were questions about whether the referendum should have been held, with the country under a government-mandated state of emergency as a result of the coup attempt and a number of other recent shocks.
A war between the state and Kurdish militants has rekindled after the failure of a peace process. Deadly attacks have been carried out in Turkish cities by the Islamic State, unnerving the public and troubling the economy.
And, since the coup, the government has carried out a feverish purge of perceived enemies that has eviscerated state institutions, schools and universities. The purge has been accompanied by a crackdown on critical journalists, politicians and other civil society groups, which Erdogan’s opponents said gave the government a significant advantage as it embarked on the referendum campaign.
A leading opposition politician from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, was arrested in November, denying the “No” campaign one of its most visible and charismatic voices. As independent media outlets were shuttered or dragged into court, the AKP’s campaign for “Evet,” or “Yes,” dominated Turkey’s airwaves as well as its public spaces.
At the same time, Turkey’s political opposition has long been regarded as ineffectual and divided. And as a campaigner, Erdogan is widely credited with uncommon gifts. A centerpiece of his latest campaign was a pitched fight with European leaders that stirred up nationalist, anti-Western sentiment at home.
“His populism is effective in large part because it is heartfelt,” wrote Howard Eissenstat, a professor of history at St. Lawrence University, in a recent paper that was sharply critical of Erdogan and the proposed constitutional changes. “At the same time, he is capable of shockingly cynical calculations in the name of political survival.”
“Erdogan’s genius as a politician, his flair for rhetoric, his capacity to mobilize his base, and his sense of himself as a ‘man of history’ have all served to put him at the center of Turkish politics for more than a decade,” he wrote.
On the eve of the vote, Erdogan’s supporters tried to drive home the arguments they have made throughout the campaign: that the constitutional changes were a remedy to weak coalition governments, an affliction with a long history in Turkey, and that foreign opposition to the changes, including from European leaders, were intended to hold the country back.
“They do not support this because they do not want what is best for Turkey,” said Muhammet Sirin, a spokesman for a local AKP party branch in Istanbul, speaking of Erdogan’s foreign critics. “They are still acting with the mentality of the crusades. This nation has woken up, and we are going to stand on our feet now,” he said.
But Duygu Becerik, a 22-year-old law student who was campaigning for the “No” vote in Istanbul on Saturday, belonged to a generation that barely recalled the chaos of Turkey’s flimsy coalition governments. Erdogan and the AKP had dominated the country’s politics since she was a child.
One of her professors had been fired from her university as part of the post-coup purges. Her rejection of the constitutional changes is not just personally directed at Erdogan, but is based in part on the fear that Turkey was creating an exceptionally powerful executive, not just for the current president but forever.
“Erdogan will eventually die. Other people will take power — exactly the same power — but we don’t know who,” she said. “That is problematic.”