ANKARA, Turkey (AFP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday angrily rejected criticism by international monitors of a referendum granting him extra powers that was disputed by the opposition and exposed bitter divisions in the country.
The referendum was seen as crucial not just for shaping Turkey’s political system but also the future strategic direction of a nation that has been a NATO member since 1952 and a European Union hopeful for half a century.
Returning in triumph to his presidential palace in Ankara, Erdogan addressed thousands of supporters gathered outside, telling monitors who criticised the poll: “Know your place.”
Showing no sign of pulling his punches, Erdogan said Turkey could hold further referendums on its EU bid and re-introducing the death penalty.
The ‘Yes’ camp won 51.41 percent in Sunday’s referendum, according to complete results released by election authorities.
But the opposition immediately cried foul, claiming a clean vote would have made a difference of several percentage points and handed them victory.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said they would challenge the results from most ballot boxes due to alleged violations.
“There is only one decision to ease the situation in the context of the law — the Supreme Election Board (YSK) should annul the vote,” the Dogan news agency quoted CHP deputy leader Bulent Tezcan as saying.
The referendum has no “democratic legitimacy,” HDP spokesman and lawmaker Osman Baydemir told reporters in Ankara.
There were sporadic protests in Istanbul with hundreds of people crowding the anti-Erdogan Besiktas district, blowing whistles and chanting “we are against fascism,” an AFP correspondent said.
Unlevel playing field
The opposition had already complained of an unfair campaign that saw the ‘Yes’ backers swamp the airwaves and use billboards across the country in a saturation advertising campaign.
International observers agreed the campaign was conducted on an “unlevel playing field” and that the vote count itself was marred by late procedural changes that removed key safeguards.
“The legal framework… remained inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic referendum,” the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) monitors said in a joint statement.
The Turkish opposition was particularly incensed by a decision by the YSK to allow voting papers without official stamps to be counted, which they said opened the way for fraud.
“Late changes in counting procedures removed an important safeguard,” said Cezar Florin Preda, the head of the PACE delegation.
But Erdogan told the mission to “know your place”, saying Turkey had no intention of paying any attention to the report.
He added: “This country held the most democratic polls that have never been seen in any other country in the West.”
End of the dream
Erdogan earlier congratulated cheering supporters at Ankara’s airport for “standing tall” in the face of the “crusader mentality” of the West.
Turkey’s Western allies have shown little enthusiasm for congratulating Erdogan and the president has given ominous signs of a looming crisis with the EU.
Erdogan reaffirmed he would now hold talks on reinstating capital punishment, a move that would automatically end Turkey’s EU bid, and would hold a referendum if it did not get enough votes in parliament to become law.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that if Ankara were to bring back the death penalty, the move would be “synonymous with the end of the European dream” and mark the end of decades of talks to enter the EU.
In an interview in the Bild newspaper to be published Tuesday, he warned Turkey that “joining would not work right now.”
But Erdogan said Turkey could hold a referendum on the membership bid. “What George, Hans or Helga say does not interest us,” he said, using typical European names.
Big cities say No
Turkey’s new political system is due to come into effect after elections in November 2019, although Erdogan is expected to rapidly rejoin the ruling Justice Development Party (AKP) he founded but had to leave when he became president.
It would dispense with the prime minister’s post and centralize the entire executive bureaucracy under the president, giving Erdogan the direct power to appoint ministers.
In a bid to get back to business, Erdogan was on Monday to chair a cabinet and security meeting at his presidential palace that could extend the nine-month state of emergency brought in after last July’s failed coup.
Erdogan’s victory was far tighter than expected, emerging only after several nail-biting hours late Sunday which saw the ‘No’ result dramatically catch up.
Turkey’s three largest cities — Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir — all voted ‘No’ although ‘Yes’ prevailed in Erdogan’s Anatolian heartland.