Voters approved 26 amendments to Turkey's Constitution on Sunday in a bitterly contested referendum that has exposed the depth of social divisions in the country.
In the simple “yes” or “no” ballot, 58 percent voted for changes to the charter written in the aftermath of a 1982 military coup. Some 42 percent voted against the amendments, leaving a 16-point margin of victory – far larger than most polls predicted.
Mr. Erdogan fought off a stiff challenge from opponents convinced the changes would compromise the judiciary and cement power by the Islam-rooted party. After all, two of the amendments give the government much greater influence over the judiciary – seen by many Turks as one of the last guarantors of the secular tradition enshrined by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk when he forged modern Turkey in 1923. But Erdogan and his supporters claim that the changes are necessary to democratize the country in line with European standards and make the military more accountable to civilian rule.
"We have passed a historic threshold on the way to advanced democracy and the supremacy of law," said Erdogan to applause from supporters gathered to celebrate the victory. "Supporters of military intervention and coups are the losers tonight."
The divisions could easily be seen in a single polling station in downtown Istanbul, where both sides lined up to vote.
“This is a radical decision point for the future of Turkey,” said lawyer Baris Aslan as he stood outside the Cihangir Primary School, where more than 5,000 people were registered to vote at 13 ballot boxes. “This is the spot between the religious and the secular, between despotism or democracy. I voted ‘no.’”
Mr. Aslan said that the changes had been prepared by “the Islamist party” and “without the input of the people."
"They are asking – in fact threatening – people to vote 'yes,' " said Aslan. "The Prime Minister said if you do not take part, you will be ‘eliminated.’ What does that mean? That you will no longer be a Turk?”
Echoing critics from nationalist parties who, during eight years of AKP rule, have been dismayed at the erosion of the military’s role in Turkish society, and the failure of the powerful judiciary to stop the AKP, Aslan said the vote was about “trust” in the government.
“If ‘yes’ is the result, then Tayyip Erdogan will be the king alone, to decide for Turkey,” says Aslan. “He’ll become the sole power.”
But inside the primary school, upstairs past a number of portraits of Ataturk, the worldview of other Turkish voters could not be more different.
“We believe if we say ‘yes,’ it will be good for democracy, and we want democracy,” said Abdul Hamid, a student. His mother, a housewife called Altun, was wearing a black headscarf and said: “Yes, yes, yes!”
“We believe in the AKP, and in Prime Minister Erdogan,” said Mr. Hamid, who predicted a 60 percent victory for the “yes” vote. His father would arrive in five minutes, to vote the same way. “It is so important to change the rules.”
Calls for unity
Turkish President Abdullah Gul called for unity after casting his ballot: “From tomorrow onwards, Turkey needs to unite as one, and look ahead,” said Mr. Gul. “The public has the final say in democracies. I would like to remind everyone to welcome the result with respect and maturity.”
At rallies in the lead-up to the vote, Mr. Erdogan sought to reassure Turks that the changes were meant only to modernize Turkey’s coup-era Constitution in line with standards set by the European Union. The AKP has stepped up Turkey’s decades-long campaign for membership of the EU, which backed the amendments.
But the premier has also felt the need to tamp down suspicion that he wants more power himself, while eroding that of traditional power elites in the military and judiciary. The vote on Sunday falls precisely on the 30-year anniversary of a traumatic 1980 military coup.
“I have never wished to be a sultan,” he told CNN in an interview on Friday. “Right now, we are trying to eliminate the sultans from the republic…. We are the servants of our nation. We are not and will not be their masters.”
Sunday's referendum results show a closer yes-no gap in Istanbul and in more-secular western Turkey, while across the interior Anatolian plain support for the government’s proposed amendments was higher.
Ethnic Kurdish areas of the southeast largely heeded their leaders' calls for a boycott, though the 35 percent who turned out overwhelmingly voted in favor of the changes.
But in this Istanbul school, there was also suspicion. The vote was “very important because the AKP wants to take all the power for themselves,” said Nohal Cali, a book editor and poll worker.
“I believe the AKP is lying about democracy…. In past weeks [the atmosphere] was too polarized, so everyone is stressed about it,” says Mrs. Cali. “This is a struggle, and it doesn’t end here.”