Istanbul, Turkey – Turkey’s leaders claimed victory for the “Yes” campaign in the referendum to amend the country’s constitution and grant the presidential office new executive powers.
The changes voted for on Sunday transform Turkey’s governance from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, significantly expanding the powers of the top office.
“I pray the outcome will bring auspiciousness to our country,” said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a news conference in Istanbul.
“The president will serve the country bearing in mind one nation, one flag, one state… The referendum is over and the debate prior to that is over.”
As of 20:00GMT on Sunday, the “Yes” campaign was leading with 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent with 99 percent of votes counted.
The changes were backed by the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party), founded by Erdogan, and the leadership of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), whose parliamentary support was vital to take the amendments to a public vote.
“We are all brothers and sisters in a single body standing against traitors,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said, speaking at the AK Party’s headquarters to cheering supporters.
“Thank you Turkey, thank you my holy nation… the nation said the last word and said ‘Yes’.”
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and other critics argue the amendments give too much power to one individual, undermining the separation of powers in the government.
The opposition demanded a recount citing voting irregularities.
The constitutional changes will only enter into force after the presidential and parliamentary elections set for 2019. Erdogan will have to be elected then to claim the powers this referendum brings.
This result gives the president new powers to assign ministers, high-level state officials, and vice-presidents, as well as half the members in the country’s highest judicial body.
It will also allow the president to dissolve parliament, and issue executive decrees and state of emergencies.
Erdogan said Turkey’s political system had created too many short-lived governments, leading to instability and economic malaise.
Security concerns were further emphasised when some members of the Turkish army tried to topple the government last July in a failed coup.
Turkey’s presidency traditionally was neutral and largely ceremonial.
However, Erdogan has effectively transformed the office to a more politically active one after he became Turkey’s first president to be elected by popular vote in 2014 after previous constitutional changes passed in a similar referendum in 2010.
Erdogan’s AK Party launched a massive campaign to convince Turks to vote for the constitutional changes, inside and outside of the country.
The party has ruled Turkey for 15 years after taking over the nation of 75 million people during a political crisis and economic downturn in 2002.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras