Now, with the results showing a narrow 51%-to-49% victory for Erdogan, the opposition says the vote counting, too, was marred by fraud and vows to challenge it.
Still, it looks all but certain the President has won a historic victory that will not only transform the country he has led since 2013, but will also create a path for him to remain in office until 2029.
Erdogan, a charismatic, authoritarian populist with an agenda steeped in Islam, has become the focal point of deep divisions in the country, and this referendum will make those divisions only more acrimonious and destabilizing.
No opportunity is greater than the one proffered by Sunday’s referendum. The referendum’s win approves a new constitution containing 18 amendments that will phase in gradually, turning Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one.
Until now, the President was supposed to be a figurehead, unaffiliated with any political party and without great powers. Under Erdogan, that figurehead role was never real. But the new system will officially transform the ceremonial President into a commanding executive.
Erdogan, who has never lost an election, will resume his role as the leader of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which he founded and used as the vehicle for his meteoric rise from soccer player into Turkey’s most powerful leader in nearly a century. He will lead the party that holds the majority in parliament, controlling both the legislative and executive branches, and soon strengthening his dominance over the judiciary. Checks and balances will fade away.
Erdogan never quite left the helm of AKP even as he transitioned into the presidency, and when he faced down an attempted overthrow last July, he used the opportunity to purge the country of anyone who might stand in the way of his political ambitions.
While much of the country still looked forward to seeing Turkey draw closer to the liberal, modern West and join the European Union, Erdogan fired up the crowds with nationalist, anti-Western rhetoric. The President and his agenda are a big hit with about half the population, mostly the rural, conservative segments.
But it is anathema to the other half. For urban Turks, and for others who still embrace the secularism of Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan’s conservative, religion-driven agenda is hard to stomach.
What lies ahead for the divided Turkish people is a much more intense Erdogan era. The President will now be empowered to move forward with his plan to erode secularism and consolidate his own power. For those who want Turkey to continue on the path of a democracy, with rule of law, independent judges, free expression and equality for all, the road ahead just became much, much steeper.