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Turkey votes to expand presidential powers

April 16, 2017 at 5:01 PM EDT  | Updated: Apr 17, 2017 at 4:12 PM
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan eked out a major victory on Sunday to expand his executive powers. A narrow majority of Turks voted on a referendum to amend the country's constitution and abolish the office of the prime minister, allowing the president to issue decrees without parliamentary approval. New York Times reporter Patrick Kingsley joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: The administration of Turkeys president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is claiming victory in today’s referendum to expand the president’s executive powers. With 99 percent of the votes counted, Turkish election officials said 51 percent of Turks voted yes to amend the country’s constitution. It will result in abolishing the office of prime minister and allowing the president to draft the budget, issue decrees, and appoint judges without parliamentary approval.

President Erdogan cast his ballot in Istanbul and called a yes vote, quote, a choice for change and transformation.

Opponents charge the changes will lead to authoritarian, one-man rule, and they have already begun challenging the results.

For more on the referendum, I’m joined via Skype from Istanbul by New York Times reporter Patrick Kingsley.

Patrick, this is close. I’m sure you’ve been watching it all night. But one side is claiming victory and the other side says, not so fast.

PATRICK KINGSLEY, NEW YORK TIMES: Exactly. The administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed victory. His prime minister Binali Yildirim, who will be out of a job thanks to this constitutional change, has just made a speech claiming victory. The main opposition party however is contesting what it says is around 37% of ballot boxes and that could be well over 2 million votes in net.

SREENIVASAN: What are the concerns that the opposition has?

KINGSLEY: They are claiming there might have been ballot stuffing, there are videos circulating unverified videos of individuals taking for example taking five ballot slips and placing them within a ballot box and the main opposition party the CHP says there could be thousands of such instances but this is yet to be proved.

SREENIVASAN: How strong is the possibility that the opposition can mount enough of a challenge to take over the rule of president in a couple of years? I mean, it’s for people watching in the United States, how competitive is it there?

KINGSLEY: It feels very unlikely at the moment. President Erdogan is without a doubt the most popular politician in Turkey even if he is a very divisive man and seems to split the country in two. There is another figure within the main opposition party who is currently out of jail who could mount a particularly strong opposition to him. Never say never but at the moment he seems the likely favorite to win in 2019 and his party seems likely to be the biggest party in parliament. The only means of writing a check on the president’s power would be if opposition parties managed to form a majority in parliament but the way the physical landscape looks in Turkey now that also seems unlikely.

SREENIVASAN: How much of a factor did the attempted coup play into this vote?

KINGSLEY: I think it had a major factor or a major effect rather because President Erdogan was able to show there is a very real threat to Turkish democracy. He was able to say we were elected and a faction within the army tried to resurface from power and for that reason we need to create stability and you the electorate need to vote for this constitutional change that would centralize power in the hands of the president.

SREENIVASAN: Was Turkey and was Erdogan conscious of what the rest of the world thought about this referendum and what happens tomorrow?

KINGSLEY: I think they were very conscious because the reason why President Erdogan and his allies stoked so many battles in particular with Europe and European politicians, he called Europeans “Nazis” in particular in Holland and Germany. The reason why he did all that was to create the illusion of a Turkey under siege and that had the effect of rallying nationalist voters to his cause. It made them think that President Erdogan was the only person standing up for them and Turkey and for that reason they needed to vote for it. So he was very aware of what people thought of Turkey and he played on that and used that to his advantage.

SREENIVASAN: All right. New York Times reporter, Patrick Kingsley, joining us via Skype from Istanbul tonight thanks so much.

KINGSLEY: Thank you.

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