Turks are voting on a referendum to turn the country into a powerful executive presidency from the current parliamentary system. The vote has been dubbed as the most important in the 84-year Republic’s history.
The referendum has divided the nation with both supporters and opponents arguing the future of the country is at stake. In the Kadikoy district of Istanbul, voting has been brisk since the opening of the poll stations.
“I voted no,” one man said, “there is no such constitution in the world like the one they present to us. It is not republic, it is not democracy, it is nothing. All the power is united in one person. Let’s assume this president is a good person but what about the next one?: Anyone can use this power in a very bad way.”
The Istanbul Kadikoy district is a traditional stronghold of opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in the forefront of campaigning for the change. “I voted for our future. I don’t want a one man regime,” another woman said. “Whether it is functioning well or not, we at least have a separate legislative, judiciary and executive powers. I want this system to continue.”
But there are those who agree on the need for constitutional change. “I voted Yes, yes! For the benefit to my country,” one voter said.
Erdogan insists the reforms will create a fast and efficient system of governance that will allow Turkey to face the challenges of fighting terror and the slowing economy.
“We are offering a very important governance system to our nation both for its future and the future of children with the constitutional amendment,” Erdogan declared at an Istanbul rally Saturday.
If the referendum is passed, the parliament would be largely sidelined. The prime minister and Cabinet would be abolished, and ministers would be directly appointed by the president and accountable to him. The president would also set the budget.
The constitutional amendments also include ending the official neutrality of the president, allowing him to lead a political party. The presidency will also have the power to dissolve parliament and declare a State of Emergency, as well as greater powers for appointing high court judges, including the constitutional court.
Critics argue the constitutional reforms would usher in an elected dictatorship.
“A one-man regime,” is how Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, described the proposed changes at a rally Saturday in the capital, Ankara, saying the country was in danger. “We are putting 80 million [people] on a bus with no brakes,” he added.
The referendum campaign has added to the deep polarization already plaguing Turkey. Concerns have been expressed that division could spill over into violence after the result. Ahead of the vote both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu called on their supporters to respect the result and their opponents.
Opinion polls – while suggesting a small advantage for ‘yes’ campaigners – indicate the lead remains within the margin of error. Given the expected close vote, close scrutiny is expected on the vote itself. Turkey has a long tradition of fair voting, but ‘no’ campaigners have voiced concern that some of their voting observers have been excluded by authorities.
The OSCE, which is monitoring the vote, said it was closely following up those concerns. In its interim report last week it expressed concerns over reports of intimidation of the ‘no’ campaigners and the lack of fair access to the media.
A high turnout is predicted among 55 million voters. The result is expected to be announced late Sunday evening local time.