What next for Turkey?
All eyes on the country after Erdogan’s victory in the controversial referendum.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's victory in a controversial referendum, by a razor-thin majority for a Presidential form of government with sweeping powers, may not reflect popular consensus on where the country wants to move since the establishment of the republican form of government in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
In fact, it reflects a deep urban-rural divide. Three major cities--Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul voted "No".
There were strong indications that the voting was far from fair. International election observers criticised the decision by Turkish election officials to allow as valid more than a million ballots that had been cast without an official stamp. During the campaign for the April, 16 referendum authorities arrested a leading opposition politician against the "yes" movement and cracked down on journalists critical of the referendum.
Ever since coming to power as Prime Minister more than a decade ago, Erdogan had long wanted to change the constitutional make-up of Turkey from where the Parliament and Prime Minister held power with the President largely a ceremonial figurehead to a Presidential form of government.
Though the final result will be announced in the next few days, the country's electoral commission announced that with 99 per cent of votes counted, 51.3 per cent voters have voted in favour of the referendum and 48.7 per cent against it and the situation will more or less remain the same.
The constitutional amendments approved by the voters abolish the post of the Prime Minister and transfer executive power to the President, allow the newly empowered President to issue decrees and appoint many judges and officials responsible for scrutinising his decisions, limit the President to two five-year terms but give the option of running for a third term if Parliament truncates the second one by calling for early elections.
The country would continue to have a Parliament, which would essentially become similar to the US Congress. It could override the President's executive decisions.
The result seems to indicate that Turkish people have grown wary of the parliamentary system over the years because coalition governments have weakened the governance setup and the writ of the state.
The opposition Republican Peoples Party led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu warned after the result that the dramatic change would turn Turkey into a "one-man rule," while supporters of the new constitution believe that concentrating the executive power in the President will improve the decision-making process.
Erdogan's critics say his move to have a Presidential form of government is an example of how democratic process can, at times, throw up undemocratic results. It further diminishes the chance of Turkey's membership of the European Union.
Hailing the victory in front of a crowd of supporters in Istanbul, Erdogan said: "We are enacting the most important governmental reform of our history." He, however, gave no particular clues in his victory speech on how he plans to respond to his critics.
Erdogan's strategy seems to be intended to prevent Turkey from transforming into another religious state that could morph into a bastion of extremism, Arab News commented.
Erdogan, one of the most moderate Muslim leaders in the region represents the survival of a secular government in the Muslim world, has been acting as a de facto head of government since his election in 2014 despite having no constitutional right to wield such powers.
His position as the tallest leader in the country was further consolidated after a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. An unprecedented groundswell of his supporters rallied against the rebels and foiled the coup.
The referendum, apart from shaping Turkey's domestic politics in the years to come, will also have a significant effect on its foreign relations.
One of the immediate tasks Erdogan faces is to rebuild ties with the West, severely damaged during the referendum campaign as he sought to manufacture diplomatic crises to energise his base. After Germany and the Netherlands had blocked Turkish officials from campaigning in their respective countries having sizeable Turkish population, Erdogan had said both the nations had shown Nazi-like behaviour, drawing rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The West has reacted cautiously, but with some concern, over the referendum held under the emergency declared after the failed coup.
Some capitals, such as London, were holding fire until hearing the opinion of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had an observer mission in Turkey. Others offered their first, cautious, reactions.
The EU urged the Turkish government to seek the broadest agreement after Erdogan narrow's victory on the sweeping constitutional changes that the opposition says risk authoritarian rule.
"In view of the close referendum result and the far-reaching implications of the constitutional amendments, we also call on the Turkish authorities to seek the broadest possible national consensus in their implementation," said a statement issued by European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn.
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said on Twitter that "it shows how divided the country is; Collaboration with the EU will be even more complex."
Turkey is officially an EU candidate nation, although its accession process has been moving at a glacial pace for years when it has moved at all.
"Strange to see democracy restrict democracy. The majority has the right to decide, but I'm quite concerned about new Turkish constitution," Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said via Twitter.
A NATO official said that the constitutional referendum in alliance member Turkey "is a matter for the Turkish people".
Turkey's disenchantment with NATO and the West and its receding EU accession hope are playing an important role in redefining the country's relations with Asian powers including India which he is likely to visit shortly.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views are strictly personal.)