As “no” supporters vented their anger, thousands of jubilant supporters of the ruling AKP party filled the streets of the capital, Ankara, beating drums and singing victory songs in Erdogan’s name.
With nearly all of the 47.5 millions votes counted, state media reported that 51.4% had voted in favor versus 48.6% against, revealing deep divisions within the country over its future rule.
Voters were asked to endorse an 18-article reform package put forward by the ruling Justice and Development Party that would replace the current system of parliamentary democracy with a powerful executive presidency.
Alongside claims of voting irregularities, the “No” campaign said they faced intimidation and threats of violence, and independent monitors say that state media slanted coverage in favor of the president.
Opponents of the referendum result are expected to take to the streets across the country Monday to protest the result. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) questioned the legitimacy of the results, saying the country’s electoral authority had decided to “change the rules in the middle of the game.”
The High Electoral Board initially said it would not accept ballots that were missing ballot commission stamps, but changed course after voting was underway, saying it would accept unstamped ballots “unless they are proven to have been brought from outside.”
The opposition said this would affect the legitimacy of the vote and called for a partial recount of about 37% of the votes, said Erdal Aksunger of the CHP. He left the door open to challenging a higher percentage of the ballots.
The official results will arrive in about 10 days, after any objections have been considered, Supreme Electoral Council President Sadi Guven said.
Rise to power
Erdogan won his first Presidential election in 2014 after serving as prime minster for more than a decade.
By little more than force of personality, he’s since turned the largely ceremonial post into a vehicle of significant power and, with the expected result, has cemented his grip.
The changes limit any one president to two terms — although under certain circumstances they could seek a third. The revision means Erdogan could potentially serve until 2029, if he contests and wins the next two elections in 2019 and 2024.
“(The referendum result) will profoundly change the way the country is governed, because the system is moving from being a parliamentarian one to a presidential one, (which) critics would suggest is giving overdue power to the office of the presidency,” Ahmet Kasim Han, Associate Professor, Kadir Has University, told CNN.
Supporters of the referendum say it’s a justified change given the “existential threat” on the country’s southern borders with Iraq and Syria, along with last summer’s attempted coup, Han says.
“(Supporters) argue that consolidation of power in the presidency would help solve the rift that occurred after another constitutional change in 2007 (that allowed direct elections of the president).”
A “no” voter told CNN that he had cast his vote for “democracy… (a) multi-party system, separation of powers, checks and balances. It’s valuable.”
Europe: Carefully consider implications
European bodies reacted with caution to the early results of the referendum.
“We are awaiting the assessment of the OSCE/ODIHR International Observation Mission, also with regard to alleged irregularities,” a statement issued by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker and other ranking officials said.
“The constitutional amendments, and especially their practical implementation, will be assessed in light of Turkey’s obligations as a European Union candidate country.”
The Council of Europe, a human rights organization which promotes European values and of which Turkey is a member, said the tight vote meant the country would have to proceed with caution.
“In view of the close result the Turkish leadership should consider the next steps carefully,” said the statement from Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland.
“It is of utmost importance to secure the independence of the judiciary in line with the principle of rule of law enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a full member, stands ready to support the country in this process,” the statement said.
The leaders of Hungary, Macedonia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, among others, offered their congratulations, according to Turkish state media.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev congratulated Erdogan by phone, telling him that it would “strengthen” Turkey’s role.
“This referendum will undoubtedly mark the dawn of a new era in the history of our sister country and will strengthen the role and place of stable, strong Turkey in the international arena,” Aliyev said, according to his office.
Before Erdogan claimed victory, thousands of his supporters converged at the Ankara headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which Ergodan founded.
Waving flags they shouted, “Tell us to kill, we will kill. Tell us to die, we will die. Erdogan, Erdogan, Erdogan.”
Aysel Can, a member of the AKP’s women’s branch, said, “For a strong Islamic state, for a strong Middle East, Turkey had to switch to this executive presidency system. This is a message to the world to shut up; Turkey is getting stronger. America has to know this, too. We are the voice, we are the ears, we are everything for the Middle East.”
But there were just as many who were devastated by the result.
“I’m sad, I cried all night,” one “No” voter told CNN. “It’s really sad that had to do this voting, even. In 15 years we saw that radical Islam has come to power and we’ve ended up with (this) dictatorship.”
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim tried to build bridges in the wake of the close result.
“No one should have an offended or broken heart,” he said. “There’s no stopping. We will continue our path. We will continue marching on from where we left.”
CNN’s Kara Fox, Eliott C. McLaughlin, James Masters, Hande Atay Alam and Deborah Bloom contributed to this report.