Monday 24 July 2017

Erdogan unfazed by vote criticism as he hails approval to expand powers

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a rally of supporters a day after the referendum (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a rally of supporters a day after the referendum (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has finally fulfilled his long-held ambition to expand his powers after a referendum handed him the reigns of his country's governance.

But success did not come without a cost, and his victory leaves the nation deeply divided and facing increasing tension with former allies abroad, while international monitors and opposition parties have reported numerous voting irregularities.

An unofficial tally carried by the country's state-run news agency gave Mr Erdogan's Yes vote a narrow win, with 51.4% approving a series of constitutional changes converting Turkey's political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one.

Critics argue the reforms will hand extensive power to a man with an increasingly autocratic bent, leaving few checks and balances in place.

Opposition parties called foul, complaining of a series of irregularities. They were particularly outraged by an electoral board decision to accept ballots that did not bear official stamps, as required by Turkish law, and called for the vote to be annulled.

International monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who also listed numerous irregularities, said the move undermined safeguards against fraud.

The referendum campaign was heavily weighted in favour of the Yes camp, with Mr Erdogan drawing on the full powers of the state and government to dominate the airwaves and billboards. The No campaign complained of intimidation, detentions and beatings.

In Istanbul, hundreds of No supporters demonstrated in the streets on Monday, chanting "thief, murderer, Erdogan" and banging pots and pans.

But Mr Erdogan was unfazed by the criticism as he spoke to flag-waving supporters in the capital Ankara.

"We have put up a fight against the powerful nations of the world," he said as he arrived at the airport from Istanbul. "The crusader mentality attacked us abroad... We did not succumb. As a nation, we stood strong."

In a speech before a massive crowd at his sprawling presidential palace complex, Mr Erdogan insisted Turkey's referendum was "the most democratic election... ever seen in any Western country" and admonished the OSCE monitors to "know your place".

The increasing polarisation of Turkish society has long worried observers, who note the dangers of deepening societal divisions in a country with a history of political instability.

The referendum was held with a state of emergency still in place, imposed after an attempted coup last July.

About 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs in the crackdown that followed on supporters of a US-based Islamic cleric and former Erdogan ally who the president blamed for the attempted putsch.

Tens of thousands have been arrested or imprisoned, including politicians, judges, journalists and businessmen.

On Monday, the country's Council of Ministers decided to extend the state of emergency, which grants greater powers of detention and arrest to security forces, for a further three months. The decision will now be sent to parliament for approval.

Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East history at St Lawrence University in upstate New York, said: "The way (Erdogan) has closed the door on the opposition, there is likely to be increased political unrest.

"Forty-eight per cent of the population is being told that their voices don't matter."

There is also the risk of increased international isolation, with Mr Erdogan appealing to patriotic sentiments by casting himself as a champion of a proud Turkish nation that will not be dictated to by foreign powers in general, and the European Union in particular.

Turkey has been an EU candidate for decades, but its accession efforts have been all but moribund for several years.

"They have made us wait at the gates of the European Union for 54 years," Mr Erdogan told his supporters at the presidential palace.

"We can conduct a vote of confidence on this as well. Would we? What did England do - they did Brexit, right?

"Either they will hold their promises to Turkey or they'll have to bear the consequences," he added.

Mr Erdogan has also vowed to consider reinstating the death penalty - a move that would all but end prospects of EU membership. But, he insisted, other nations' opinions on the issue are irrelevant to him.

"Our concern is not what George or Hans or Helga says. Our concern is what Hatice, Ayse, Fatma, Ahmet, Mehmet, Hasan, Huseyin says," he thundered as the crowd of supporters chanted for the return of capital punishment.

"What Allah says. That's why our parliament will make this decision."

AP

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